Elections

Why do women’s groups treat Bill Clinton and Donald Trump differently?

Michelle Obama says she can’t stop thinking about Donald Trump ‘bragging about sexually assaulting women’

At a Hillary Clinton campaign event in Manchester, NH, First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a blistering speech about the latest sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump. In his speech in West Palm, Fla. Trump called the accusations "outrigh
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At a Hillary Clinton campaign event in Manchester, NH, First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a blistering speech about the latest sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump. In his speech in West Palm, Fla. Trump called the accusations "outrigh

Groups that advocate for women’s rights are lashing out at Donald Trump for allegations of groping women and bragging about sexual assaults.

But some of those same groups did not think former President Bill Clinton’s allegations of sexual misconduct nearly two decades ago were disqualifying in the same way.

Women will not stand by and allow this man to become president.

Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, which backs women who support abortion rights

At least three women – Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey – accused Clinton of unwanted sexual advances. Another five, including White House intern Monica Lewinsky, said they had had consensual affairs with him. Clinton was impeached on charges of lying about the Lewinsky affair before a grand jury and of obstruction of justice, but was acquitted and served his full presidential term.

Women’s groups largely stayed supportive.

“Feminists have, all along, muffled, disguised, excused and denied the worst aspects of the president’s behavior with women,” said a lengthy Vanity Fair article from 1998.

“Feminism sort of died in that period,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd told Yahoo recently. “Because the feminists had to come along with Bill Clinton’s retrogressive behavior with women in order to protect the progressive policies for women that Bill Clinton had as president.”

Clinton’s female supporters stood by him, especially as he denied allegations of misconduct, as has Trump. Later, after Clinton admitted to some of the allegations of consensual sex, they did criticize him but still supported him.

They were called hypocrites at the time, particularly when they were among the first to blast conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., for allegations of sexual misconduct.

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, said Clinton’s situation was entirely different because it came as Republicans were attacking him and his pro-women agenda, including fighting against the Equal Rights Amendment and a law banning discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs.

“For people like me, it was a totally different story and origin,” Smeal told McClatchy this week. “It was a right-wing attack. We saw it as a right-wing effort to draw out of office a president for ideological reasons.”

The cacophony that ensued was notable for the absence of one set of voices: the sisterly chorus that backed up Anita Hill seven years ago when her charges of sexual harassment nearly stopped Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court.

the late Marjorie Williams, writer for Vanity Fair in 1998

Most comments from influential women and women’s groups in 1998 focused on the Lewinsky scandal, which received the most attention because of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s lengthy investigation and the president’s subsequent impeachment.

Many women declined to even comment about the trio of women who alleged groping, assault or rape – Broaddrick, Jones and Willey.

“There’s no question that it’s disturbing. . . . But to come to any judgment now is definitely not something that I think is timely,” National Women’s Political Caucus then-President Anita Perez Ferguson said about Willey at the time.

Donna Lent, the current president of the group, said this week that women’s groups were critical of Clinton, angry that he was jeopardizing equality moves such as boosting the number of women in government.

“It was shameful. It was absolutely shameful: the embarrassment, the pain to his wife, his daughter, the public,” Lent said.

It was only after Willey, a volunteer in the White House social office, went public about allegations that Clinton had groped her in the Oval Office in 1993 that some groups began to take them more seriously.

The National Organization for Women said her statement raised the question of whether Clinton was a “sexual predator,” not just a “womanizer.”

Still, groups supported Clinton politically.

“If all the sexual allegations now swirling around the White House turn out to be true, President Clinton may be a candidate for sex addiction therapy,” Gloria Steinem, one of the leaders of the women’s movement, wrote in The New York Times in 1998. “But feminists will still have been right to resist pressure by the right wing and the news media to call for his resignation or impeachment.”

Women’s rights advocates called on lawmakers to end their impeachment proceedings and urged voters to push out Republicans in the midterm elections because of their “anti-feminist” agenda.

“If disgust with the current crisis depresses women’s votes in November, we will see an anti-women’s rights majority in Congress roll back the gains for women of the past 30 years,” said a joint statement released by 15 feminist and civil rights organizations in 1998. “We call on women to raise their voices to protest this assault on fairness and the democratic process and to let the Congress know how strongly we oppose impeachment.”

Clinton had appointed women to important positions, including attorney general, secretary of state and the Supreme Court, had pushed so-called feminist issues – including abortion rights, child care and affirmative action – and had signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which had been vetoed twice by a Republican predecessor.

“There’s no doubt that a lot of feminists were put in a very tough position because he was a president who they felt supported and sometimes even pushed policy that would help them move their goals forward,” said Susan Carroll, senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “But on the other hand it was clear his behavior wasn’t exactly what feminists would be happy with.”

Carroll noted that other groups experience similar situations, including the evangelical groups that back Trump. “Sometimes principles and people come into conflict, and it’s not easily worked out,” she said. “It’s a classic conflict: Which do you value more? Do you worry about the long-term political agenda or a character issue?”

Betty Friedan, the late activist and leading figure in the women’s movement, had described the attacks on Clinton as sexual McCarthyism. “It does not serve women to try to hound this president out of office. . . . It does not serve women to focus so much attention even on sexual content while the real obscenities are poverty and violence,” she said at the time.

These vicious claims about me of inappropriate conduct with women are totally and absolutely false.

Donald Trump in West Palm Beach

Sasha Bruce, senior vice president for campaigns and strategy at NARAL Pro-Choice America, declined to comment about Clinton, echoing a view held by many women. “I don’t think I am going to go down that rabbit hole because there is only one Clinton on the ballot, and that is Hillary Clinton,” she said.

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

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