Sisterhood and sex: Scandal reopens a rift among women

October 06, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- So we part company. Again.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I took some small comfort from the fact that this sex scandal had not opened up a gender gap. Since then, I've been reminded in no uncertain terms that it's opened up the intra-gender gap. Again.

Women who once came from different ends of the political spectrum to skewer Gary Hart have now retreated to opposite sides over the fate of President Clinton.

A phalanx of women's rights leaders to the left. A coterie from the ranks of the Independent Women's Forum to the right. The religious right and the secular left. Talk show volleys and polling thunders. Again.

When the Gary Hart affair broke, an odd coalition of puritans and feminists censured him. Holding hands around the good ship Monkey Business, they looked as if they were made for each other. But under that thin veneer of agreement, one was concerned with relationships and the other with commandments. Now that they have split, it's clear that this was never a marriage of the minds.

Historic differences

I am not surprised by either the earlier alliance or the current breakup of this pan-female agreement. It's hardly the first time.

Way back in the suffrage movement, we had all sorts of women marching shoulder to shoulder in favor of the vote. But when you looked closer, they were marching on different grounds. Some staked the moral claim to the vote on women's equality and others on women's purity.

The conservative women in the temperance movement were persuaded that it was all right, indeed godly, to get out of the house and work for suffrage -- because abolition was a goal and Demon Rum an enemy. The more liberal suffragists led the charge -- civil rights were the goal and inequality was the enemy.

When the women's movement re-emerged a generation ago, sexual politics raged most furiously around sex itself. As one veteran remembers the conundrum of consciousness-raising groups, "One week we were saying, 'Smash monogamy,' and the next week we were saying, 'Wait a minute, that's what the men want.' " One week the focus was on sexual liberation for women, the next week on protection for women.

Sisterhood repeatedly splintered over sex. Consider the odd bedfellows against pornography. Radical feminists and reactionary religious groups have testified together in favor of banning porn. But they don't even define it the same way.

The anti-porn feminists like law professor Catharine MacKinnon define pornography as sex discrimination. But the moral majoritarians define it as sin.

One group fights porn as sex-ploitation that is wrong because it keeps women in their (lower) place. The other group fights porn as evil. One would X-rate those movies, videos and whatever, that maintain a power imbalance. The other would mandate fig leaves.

It's not hard to imagine a gentle video between two sensually consenting and equal adults that would pass muster with the power-conscious left and drive the prudish right nuts.

Opposing views

As for sexual harassment? After Clarence Thomas and Paula Jones, after the Army, the Navy and a handful of Supreme Court decisions, we must know how allegiances break down. One side worries about the harassment and the other about the sex. One side worries about an abuse of power going on in the corner office or the factory floor. The other worries about hanky-panky.

Of course, things are not always quite that clear. At times we all get involved in exhausting searches for the line between sex and exploitation, private behavior and public disqualification.

But in the case of Monica and Bill, the folks who hitch up their politics against sexual abuse, split up over consensual adultery. Both the unhappy campers at NOW and the smirking stalwarts at the Concerned Women for America are standing by their -- well, their principles.

One other thing remains consistent in this ramble through history. In one way or another, the country still looks to women to be the arbiters of sexual behavior. And we're expected to sing in a single voice of sisterhood.

But any time I hear sexual harmony in soprano, a little tuning fork dating way, way back tells me: This ain't never gonna last.

And so, here we go again.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/06/98

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