Why Did Hillary Clinton Let This Happen?
Posted January 27, 2018 12:35 a.m. EST
Sexual harassment has come back once more to haunt Hillary Clinton, that fervent, flawed champion of women. A new report that she refused to fire an adviser accused of sexually harassing a campaign staffer in 2008, against the recommendations of her own campaign manager, recalls her own fraught history with the women who made allegations against her husband.
And the episode is a poignant reminder that placing women in positions of leadership does not ensure they will always act to protect other women.
Clinton has been inhibited in addressing the issue of sexual harassment, during her most recent campaign and afterward, both because of her husband’s behavior and her own response to the accusations against him. Those close to her said she believed his denials and thought his accusers were lying for political purposes. His campaign hired investigators to discredit the women.
While there is debate about how directly she was involved in that effort — whether she was actively driving it or simply acceding to the strategy — the accusations that she was tainted by the exercise have dogged her and undercut her ability to speak out. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump paraded some of Bill Clinton’s accusers, seeking to divert attention from the sexual misconduct claims that he himself was facing. Hillary Clinton was never able to capitalize on that issue.
The #MeToo movement prompted much anguished reflection among Democrats who had dismissed the accounts of women who accused Bill Clinton and who had rallied behind him. The landscape of sexual harassment has been transformed since 2008, and even 2016, with generational differences emerging among women about how to define sexual harassment, what kind of due process is owed to men who are accused and what penalties are appropriate.
Now the latest reports are reviving that painful history, as well as some of the questions about female solidarity that came in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s narrow electoral loss. Just as not all women rallied to Clinton, not all women in positions of leadership have safeguarded women who reported experiencing sexual harassment.
At Fox News and Vice Media, where prominent and powerful men were accused of sexual harassment and settled claims, women who ran human resources departments were charged with burying or minimizing complaints or failing to establish robust reporting procedures.
Fox in particular was reported to have tried to plant derogatory information about women who made allegations against Bill O’Reilly.
In Clinton’s case, she decided to dock the pay of the aide, Burns Strider, who served as her faith adviser, refer him for counseling and move the woman who made the accusation to a different job. This all took place in the context of her 2008 campaign, which was notable for the sizable number of women in the upper ranks of the organization. Before the 2016 campaign, Strider worked for a separate organization that supported Clinton but was not employed by her campaign; he was reportedly fired from that organization for sexual harassment.
Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said, “Women can be not only complicit but enabling in sexual abuse, and we women as a community, as a society, need to recognize that every single one of us needs to take a good look at who we’ve stood up for and who we haven’t.”
So putting women in power alone is not a magic cure-all to end sexual harassment — although most scholars argue it would help. “Statistically, if you have more women in general in positions of power, that’s going to make a change overall,” said Abigail Saguy, a professor of sociology at UCLA who has studied sexual harassment. “It doesn’t mean that every single woman is going to be attuned to this issue. Other factors shape perception, including your generation, who you’re married to, the peculiarities of your own background, how powerful you are, how long it’s been since you’ve been in a more subordinate position.”
Laurie Rudman, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, said it would be facile to dismiss the impact of women gaining power. “Nonetheless, it is still the case that women are far more likely to advocate for egalitarianism of all kinds, including gender equality, than men,” she wrote in an email. “So why cast aspersions on women just because HRC gave Mr. Strider a second chance? It seems he was penalized financially and sent to therapy, rather than being fired in 2008.” Perhaps because he was Clinton’s “faith adviser,” Rudman said, she was “more inclined to give him a shot at redemption.”
Williams and others who’ve studied sexual harassment also see in Clinton’s actions a reflection of the generational divide that has polarized feminist reaction to the #MeToo movement. Older women have worried about younger women seeing themselves as victims. “We now have a generation of young women who are offended that they even have to tell some guy to back off,” she said. “I am thrilled we live in this world, but I also feel less resentful to our feminist foremothers.”
In the end, as with so much about Clinton, your assessment of the latest story depends on whether you see her as somehow emblematic of women or this particular woman, marked and marred by her own history. “We can see looking in her biography how she may have developed this blind spot,” Saguy said. “It was maybe a coping mechanism in her own life, maybe to get up in the morning.”
It is an argument, it seems, that will never cease.