The Personal is Political:

Thinking Through the Clinton/Lewinsky/Starr Affair

Juliet A. Williams, University of California, Santa Barbara

 The Clinton/Lewinsky/Starr affair unearthed a fault line in contemporary feminist theory, an unresolved tension between two governing ideals: “the personal is political” and the right to privacy.  Since the early 1970s, both of these slogans have figured prominently in feminist scholarship and feminist politics.  But as the Clinton sex scandal dragged on, many began to question the merits of politicizing personal matters such as intimate relationships.  In the scandal’s wake, it is tempting to retire the rallying cry “the personal is political,” and to distance ourselves from what now appears to be a quaint leftover of the bold but naïve feminism of the 1970s.  In the end, Starr’s McCarthy-esque[i] probe seems to have enhanced the public commitment to privacy.  No longer to be taken for granted, the right to privacy is widely affirmed as an essential shield against official coercion.

While recent events suggest the need to reevaluate the meaning and purpose of “the personal is political,” I believe we should continue to embrace this embattled but worthy feminist motto.  Over time the meaning of the slogan has been clouded, facilitating opportunistic misappropriations.  By clarifying its meaning, I hope to redeem it both as an analytic tool and as an activist imperative in the struggle to overcome gender inequality.  I begin with a brief study of the way feminists understand and invoke both the idea of a right to privacy and the notion that personal choices are intrinsically political.  While these two ideas sometimes seem to conflict, I argue that understood properly, they are complementary.  In the second part of this article, I illustrate how following the mandate to make the personal political can help one make sense of the Clinton/Lewinsky/Starr affair.  Understanding that personal actions have political significance impels scholars to move beyond scandal-minutae and to begin explaining how American society could have engendered and sustained such a spectacle.

The Feminist Case for Privacy

The right to privacy is part of the ideological legacy classical liberalism has bequeathed to feminism.  In deploying the label “liberal” as an epithet, conservatives have strategically downplayed liberalism’s origins in a theory that holds individual liberty as the paramount political value and the preservation of liberty as the highest purpose of government.  For liberals, the right to privacy stands as an essential bulwark against what is perceived as the ever-present threat of excessive governmental coercion.  Typically, liberals have construed freedom in terms of “negative liberty,” as the absence of governmental interference in private life.  As Isaiah Berlin famously explained in “Two Concepts of Liberty,” liberty demands that “a frontier must be drawn between the area of private life and that of public authority” ([1958] 1969, 124), and  a central preoccupation for liberal philosophers has been to determine where that frontier should be drawn.[ii]

The association between liberalism and feminism is longstanding but uneasy.  In the past few decades, feminist theorists have contested vigorously the validity and merits of the public/private distinction.  On the one hand, feminists have argued that negative liberty ignores the significance of nongovernmental oppression.  Without denying that patriarchy and government are mutually supporting, feminists have drawn attention to the problem of the subordination of women in the “private” spheres of the family, the workplace, and civil society.  Feminists have argued further that while ignoring oppression in the private sphere, liberals have exaggerated the danger to liberty posed by public power.  Thus, while liberals historically have emphasized the importance of limited government, many feminists have demanded greater governmental involvement in the everyday lives of citizens to correct for pervasive inequalities.  Advocates for gender equality continue to fight for increasing welfare benefits and the minimum wage, precisely because women are disproportionately represented amongst the most economically disadvantaged in this society.  Further, feminists have demanded the extension of state power into the so-called private sphere to address problems like domestic violence and failure to pay child support

Recognizing that the public/private distinction can create a sanctuary for oppression by preventing governmental regulation of activity in the private sphere, many feminists have endorsed privacy rights only provisionally, acknowledging that it is necessary to speak in the liberal idiom of rights if progress in a liberal society is to be made.  Nowhere has the feminist willingness to embrace the tainted but useful ideal of privacy been more evident than in arguments for reproductive “rights” or “choice,” liberal constructs that feminists have problematized from a philosophical standpoint but which many people continue to value highly in the context of contemporary political struggles.

Significantly, the Clinton controversy has helped many feminists overcome their squeamishness about privacy.  Whatever inadequacies privacy doctrine suffers in theory, Starr’s probe was a forceful reminder of the dangers of allowing public officials to judge private conduct.  Throughout the episode, feminists – among many others – defended Clinton on the grounds that the private life of public figures should not be subjected to public judgment.  Of course, once presented with the facts, even most pro-Clinton feminists did not hide their disappointment that he had had sexual relations with a subordinate in the White House.  Nonetheless, many concluded that the important point to emphasize in this case is the need to restore respect for privacy.

 The Personal is Political

The steadfastness of feminist support for privacy rights is difficult to square with the avowed commitment to the idea that “the personal is political.”  The slogan first became popular in the 1970s as a way to convey to women who were suffering in silence that their individual experiences were, in fact, instances of widespread sexism.  The spirit of the sentiment was perfectly captured by consciousness-raising groups, which promoted solidarity by providing a forum for individual women to see how much they had in common with others.  In the effort to promote gender-consciousness, the privacy ethic understandably appeared to be an impediment, encouraging silence about just the kinds of experiences feminists wanted to bring to the political fore. 

The question of the compatibility of dual commitments to privacy and to politicizing personal experiences has rarely been broached.  When it has, commentators tend to be resigned to the necessity of a trade-off.  For example, in Privacy and the Politics of Intimate Life, Patricia Boling made a compelling case for privacy, but erred in assuming that supporting efforts to understand personal actions as politically meaningful entails a renunciation of privacy as a core value.  In fact, they can coexist.  When feminists say “the personal is political,” they are challenging the liberal conception of the private sphere as power-free.  In subjecting private relations to public scrutiny, some worry that “the personal is political” opens the door to government regulation of every precinct of private life.  But this interpretation rests on a conflation between the terms “political” and “government.”  To say that “the personal is political” is to say only that private life is implicated in networks of power, leaving open the question of under what circumstances it is appropriate for government to intervene. 

The right to privacy is best understood as a claim against government, rather than as a totalizing theory about the proper exercise of state power.  Commitment to the legal notion of a right to privacy in no way entails a denial of the pervasiveness of power in the private sphere.  Once we understand that it refers to a limit on governmental regulation but does not imply the absence of power, the right to privacy becomes compatible with the underlying purpose of  “the personal is political.”  The spirit of “the personal is political” lies in an acknowledgement of power without presuming to settle the question of what role government will play in feminist struggles.

Feminism stands for the politicization of power – this is the true meaning of  “the personal is political.”  This meaning is lost when the idea is viewed from the narrow perspective of liberalism, which treats politicization as tantamount to a call for interference by government.  But there is no reason for feminists to endorse such an impoverished conception of politics.  Power can be politicized without authorizing government to publicize the details of intimate life or even involving government in private decisions at all.  As an example, feminists can defend reproductive freedom by claiming that such decisions are private and also work to educate the public about the kinds of considerations that lead individual women to choose abortion, considerations which may have to do with the economy, the structure of the workplace, and the social stigma attached to single mothers.   Politicizing personal choices does not mean inviting government to regulate or proscribe. 

The Clinton/Lewinsky/Starr Affair

Throughout the long sixteen months dominated by coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky/Starr affair, feminist voices were conspicuously missing amidst the prodigious chatter of public commentary.  In the place of feminist perspectives, the putative phenomenon of feminist “silence” itself became a popular topic of conversation in the media (Zabra, 1999).[iii]  In reality, of course, feminists were far from silent.  Unfortunately, when some feminist commentators did rise in Clinton’s defense, they were attacked almost immediately and criticized for defending a president whose behavior was construed as no better than that of Clarence Thomas or Bob Packwood.  The charge was hypocrisy: Feminists claim “the personal is political” when it is politically expedient to do so, but they rally around the right to privacy when the fate of their allies is on the line.  And so it was that despite the fact that for years feminists had been criticized as oversensitive and quick to condemn, the public seemed downright disappointed that so many decided in this case to stand by their man.

In addition to those who spoke out on Clinton’s behalf, there were others who went so far as to suggest that perhaps this affair would ultimately redound to the good.  With hindsight, some suggested, the Starr Report might come to be viewed as an accidental victory in the ongoing battle for sexual liberation.  Overcoming taboos governing, say, discussion of oral sex in polite company, might help pave the way for wider public recognition of the varieties of sexual pleasures.  However, lest one imagine that such battles are waged without casualties, it is worth noting the assessment of Lewinsky’s biographer Andrew Morton, who contended that Monica “alienated moral America” for no other reason than “enjoying and being at ease with her sexuality” (1999, 202).

Whether or not one is ready to accept the idea of Lewinsky as a martyr for sexual liberation, it is worth noting that as far as the popular press is concerned, it was still mainly anti-feminists who were allowed to stand up for the free sexual self-expression of women.  Thus, it was Katie Roiphe[iv] who rose to Lewinsky’s defense in the editorial pages of the New York Times in the fall of 1998, arguing that sleeping with the boss to win a promotion is a “time-honored” and indeed perfectly respectable way for women to win professional advancement.  Perversely, though, in Roiphe’s telling sexual liberation became liberation from feminism rather than from patriarchy.  She cared only to  defend Lewinsky against vilification by the feminist establishment, ignoring Lewinsky’s equally unfriendly reception by conservatives.

            So, some feminist voices were heard, and others were not so much silent as silenced by a media which too often overlooks those feminists who do have something to say in favor of those who will say what the media wants to hear.  Still, there is something to the point that feminists did not participate as fully in the public discourse on this issue as they might have.  This reflects, in part, a self-conscious decision, made early on by organizations like NOW, the Black Leadership Forum, and many others, to treat the Clinton/Lewinsky/Starr matter as an inappropriate subject for public scrutiny given that the core concern was a private affair between two consenting adults.  In other words, they concluded that as long as Clinton’s sexual dalliances fell short of the high legal standards set for showing sexual harassment or rape, the details of his social life should remain sheltered from public scrutiny.  The general opinion seemed to be that real progress for women is best ensured by having a “pro-woman” president like Clinton in office, however disappointing his personal choices might be.

For reasons both principled and strategic, then, many feminists deemed it unwise to use the Clinton–Lewinsky affair as an occasion to push the feminist agenda forward on issues like workplace harassment and sex discrimination.  But how wise was their retreat to the privacy defense of Clinton?  More generally, what is lost when feminists abstain in principled silence from public discourse?  Answers to these questions bears on the meaning of politics, the status of women, and the contribution feminism can make to people interested in transforming gender relations in this country.

This was made obvious to me during a meeting of an undergraduate seminar I taught in the winter of 1999.  I opened a class discussion with a series of related questions: Why is the Clinton/Lewinsky/Starr affair so compelling?  How do you explain its enduring grip on the American public?  As the class discussion evolved, a kind of consensus emerged.  The story appeals precisely because it is so personal, not political.  As one student explained, the scandal played like one really long episode of The Jerry Springer Show.  The drama drew us in because it offered an all-too welcome respite from the otherwise painfully predictable news diet of ordinary times.  Another student candidly revealed his surprise at his mother’s “obsession” with all things Lewinsky.  Describing his mother as a “housewife” whom he had never known to show even a modicum of interest in politics, she had consumed voraciously every detail of the Starr probe.  Asked to explain his mother’s newfound interest in public affairs, my student echoed the dominant opinion that it was because this episode wasn’t real politics at all. 

One heard similar sentiments voiced over and over again by politicians and the press throughout this affair.  We’ve got to move beyond this “salacious” story, this trivial “distraction.”  The true crime here is that all this sex-talk is preventing Clinton from doing the business of the American people.  With so many real problems in the world, why are we wasting our time on the intimate details of a personal relationship between two consenting adults?  Rather than applauding the fact that this episode generated so much interest in politics and inquiring into the reasons it gripped so many, the instinct was to disparage those who were engaged, thereby denying the public an opportunity to participate in defining what constitutes politics.  To acknowledge that the personal is political would mean including more concerns, and ultimately more people, in the conversation of national politics, expanding the agenda and sharing the spotlight.

Driven by fatigue and disgust, proponents all across the political spectrum are adopting a blatantly biased and exceedingly stingy concept of politics.  Peter Beinart gave voice to the prevailing mood in a New Republic piece bemoaning “Monica Lewinsky’s yearlong stranglehold on American politics.”  Beinart gestured hopefully toward the scandal’s end, when Americans might finally “cleanse” politics of the embarrassing stain of sex (1999, 21).  But looking towards the next election cycle, Beinart feared it inevitable that “the noxious odor of public sex,” would waft back over politics.  These remarks reflect a deeply entrenched cultural reflex to protect politics from “degradation” by personal issues.  Even those who share Beinart’s disdain for the excessive coverage of the affair must be wary of cries to defend the sacred realm of politics against contamination by personal concerns, and particularly by sex.  As uncomfortable and, at times, oppressive as this controversy was, we must not succumb to the temptation to shove the affair’s central themes back into the closet.  Feminists have worked too hard for too long to put issues like sexual harassment and sex discrimination on the national agenda to retreat so quickly.  One must be especially careful not to let a denial of the commission of these crimes in this case slide into a general denial of the appropriateness of sex as a subject of political discourse.

I believe the meaning of the political must be broadened beyond the narrow confines Beinart defends, and also that the domain of politics must be more carefully distinguished from the realm of law.  Failing to make this distinction validates the reflex to take issues off of the political agenda simply because they are not obviously amenable to legal redress.  This is a point that has been easy to overlook throughout the past three decades, as feminists have won significant victories in courtrooms across the land.  By focusing predominantly on legally recognizable offenses, however, feminists may find themselves disarmed in political debates.  While many disapproved of Clinton’s actions, far fewer believed that what happened qualified as sexual harassment in the legal sense of the term.  Unfortunately, in the absence of a crisp legal category to characterize his actions, many chose silence as the only alternative to fueling the prosecutorial fires.  A better strategy might have been to resist the dilemma of false alternatives. Situating events along a legal/illegal axis is merely one possible way to frame an analysis, and legal discourse often demonstrates a far too limited capacity to express nuance and ambivalence about the way power works. 

In the interest of promoting a political discourse apart from considerations of the law, I decided my best shot for making my voice heard would be to log onto the Internet and join the great sea of  chat.  So, I opened my account on America Online and entered a chat room called “Monica Lewinsky.”  I chose “julietwill” as my screen name, not realizing that such a moniker would be understood as the virtual equivalent of “asking for it.”  Within 24 hours, a slew of pornographic emails were sent to my account from people who saw my name listed as a member of that particular chat room.  Significantly, I was subjected to this barrage of spam despite the fact that I never actually posted a message.

This experience teaches a powerful lesson about personal politics.  The almost instantaneous emergence on the Internet of Lewinsky-themed “politico-porn” brings into view what lurks just beneath the surface of mainstream political discourse.  Using the Internet was supposed to allow anonymous, self-inventing individuals to freely cavort with anyone, anywhere, any time.  However, the vigor and frequency with which anyone who identifies as female in virtually any chatroom is bombarded with sophomoric come-ons suggests that the presumption of a distinction between personal and political identities is still more ideological than real.  So often, feminists are criticized for making the personal political, implying that we have somehow upset the natural order of things in which the domains of the personal and the political are clearly circumscribed.  But my experience on-line serves as a reminder of the many ways in which the political is always already personal.  It’s tough when talking about sex as a political subject means having people talk about me as a sexual object.

How should feminists respond to a reality in which the public and private domains are deeply intertwined?  One possible response is to work harder to maintain boundaries.  Without making any ontological claims about the necessity of a distinction between public and private matters, one might nonetheless advocate for following different norms in different contexts.  This approach has prevailed in the area of sexual harassment.  Many women’s advocates have argued for the necessity of professional workplaces in which the bounds of appropriate interaction are strictly delineated.  The intuitive notion behind this liberal strategy is that women are disadvantaged and disempowered when sex enters into workplace relations.  However, here a problem arises, one which the public commentary about Monica Lewinsky has helped to crystallize.  The problem is the underlying assumption that sex disempowers women.  Lewinsky’s story suggests that the fact that women are viewed in terms of sex can sometimes be used to great advantage.  For at least some women, some of the time, sex is power.  The relationship between sex and power has generated considerable controversy amongst feminists (Chancer, 1998).  Theorists like Catharine Mackinnon and Andrea Dworkin have sought to disclose the myriad ways in which participating in normative heterosexuality degrades women in a patriarchal society, while writers as diverse as Jane Gallop and Susie Bright celebrate sex as an occasion for women experience pleasure and assert power. 

Nor has this debate been confined to academia.  Ally McBeal has become immensely popular by offering itself up as a weekly rejoinder to the perceived threat posed by a feminism many believe to be bent on invalidating precisely those women who use sex to their own advantage.  Unlike “the feminists” who supposedly want to keep sex out of the workplace, Ally coyly refuses the imperative of the public/private split.  Instead, we are treated on a weekly basis to Ally’s great refusal, a principled stand which takes the form of parading around the law office is absurdly short skirts.  Why is such a character so compelling to so many women at this moment in time? 

Ally McBeal appeals, I think, to those who see feminists as bent on stopping women from using sex appeal to get ahead.  It is certainly the case that historically feminists have been concerned that women may be tempted to use sex to gain short term advantages, not realizing that they may pay dearly later in terms of respect and self-worth.  The concern, however, has been less moral than practical.  It has been based on the conviction that outside of the idealized world of television, wearing short skirts only gets one so far.  To use the real-world example: Lewinsky may have successfully used sex appeal to get into the Oval Office, but once there, she spent most of her time quite literally kneeling at the feet of the most powerful man on Earth.  Nonetheless, women who have internalized the message that their greatest asset lies is the fact that they are desired by men may find it difficult to perceive that sex appeal can be disempowering.  The ongoing backlash against feminism by women suggests that many believe it is feminists who pose the real threat to women by invalidating short skirts and flirtatiousness, which still are viewed widely as important resources in women’s struggles for power.

Interestingly, feminists commenting on the Clinton/Lewinsky/Starr affair remain deeply divided on the question of whether Lewinsky was a victim or a perpetrator; whether her experience proves that women can use sex to get power, or that women will always be used for sex by powerful men.  The very fact of the enduring disagreement about her status renders Lewinsky fascinating as a subject of feminist analysis.  Analyzing her experiences requires one to draw connections between personal and political issues at every stage.  This is especially important today.  Just at the moment when the nation might begin to thoughtfully reflect on the public significance of this affair and its implications for history, observers find themselves plunged ever deeper into the numbing comfort of scandal trivia.  (See, e.g. Carville 1998; Isikoff 1999; Morton 1999; Toobin 2000).  I suspect that the public appetite for these tell-all tomes bespeaks an unconscious desire to deflect attention from the big question of what the scandal tells Americans about themselves as a nation.  Rather than confronting the challenge implicit in “the personal is political,” these authors help us keep this issue very personal, probing deeper into the lives of the protagonists rather than looking outward at the way the world in which we live produced this drama.  It is comforting to think that at the end of the day this episode was about “that woman,” not about all Americans – not “our” workplaces, friends, daughters, sisters, and mothers.

No feminist wants to have to argue for (his)tory over her-story, but that is what we need in order to understand this curious chapter in U.S. history.  Rather than seeking the solace of amnesia by pretending this whole thing never happened, we might begin by trying to understand the relationship between Monica’s Story and our own stories.  Beware those like Michael Oreskes who dismissed the book as tabloid drivel.  With unabashed contempt, Oreskes opined that the book “will be an original source document” for “those who argue that American culture is collapsing in on itself, hollowed out by self-indulgence and narcissism” (1999, 6).  Oreskes chastised Lewinsky for being too selfish and too self-involved, but he did no better by keeping his own critical gaze narrowly trained on Lewinsky herself and refusing to contemplate the wider social and political meanings of the affair.  Remembering that the personal is political will allow feminists to do better.

 Much Ado About Something

There is no inherent conflict between the right to privacy and “the personal is political,” if for no other reason than that there are many useful ways to politicize an issue without demanding that government to regulate it.  The slogan “the personal is political” should be understood as an imperative to situate matters like the Clinton/Lewinsky/Starr affair in their broader social contexts.   Those who understand “the personal is political” to mean that government and the media have an unimpeded right to publicize the intimate details of personal life oversimplify and distort the spirit of the motto.  The pursuit of public knowledge does not in itself justify incursions against privacy.

Some may consider my effort to reconcile the right to privacy and “the personal is political” besides the point in the case of the Clinton scandal.  Questions about Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky first arose in the course of investigating Paula Jones’ sexual harassment claim against Clinton.  Clinton invoked privacy rights to justify his decision to lie under oath during a pretrial deposition.  His recourse to privacy in that instance corrupted and cheapened the doctrine.  It also was strikingly disrespectful of those who have worked so hard to gain legal redress for sexual harassment victims.  From this perspective, to speak of Clinton’s privacy rights in this case is to seriously misrepresent the nature of the issues at stake (Mink 2000).

            I agree.  In my view, the right to privacy never implies the right to lie under oath.  However, I do believe there is room for disagreement on what behaviors constitute sexual harassment and whether enough is being done to protect the rights of the accused when charges arise.  On these questions, there is ample space for debate amongst feminists, and it is terribly disappointing that more such discussions were not had over the long months dominated by the scandal.  Clinton deserves a healthy share of the blame for this.  Ironically, Clinton’s own interest in privacy might have been better served had he taken the imperative of “the personal is political” more seriously.  No one would deny that Clinton was put in an uncomfortable situation when asked by Jones’ lawyers to discuss his consensual relationships with other women, and it is easy to understand how he might have thought that the law does not do enough to protect individuals accused of sexual harassment.  However justified, Clinton expressed his dissent in a way that was both short-sighted and selfish.  He obviously was concerned only with how to wiggle out of the immediate crisis, not how to alter a system he believed to be unfair.  He might have done better by taking the “the personal is political” to heart and considering what could be done to insure that others would not find themselves facing a similar predicament.  In telling the truth but protesting the law, Clinton could have approached reform from a position of strength rather than weakness.   To those who say that such a course would have been political suicide, I must respectfully disagree.  Throughout the scandal, the public demonstrated an enormous capacity for compassion and forgiveness, belying Clinton’s self-serving assumption that telling the truth was not a viable option.  Under the circumstances, making a political issue of a personal affair might have given Clinton a chance to turn a personal failure into an opportunity to make a difference for others.


Beinart, Peter.  1999.  “How the Personal Became Political.”  New Republic (February): 21.

 Benn, S.I., and G. F. Gaus.  1983.  Public and Private in Social Life.  London: Croom Helm.

 Berlin, Isaiah.  [1958] 1969.  “Two Concepts of Liberty.”  Four Essays on Liberty.  New York: Oxford University Press.

 Boling, Patricia.  1996.  Privacy and the Politics of Intimate Life.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press.  

 Chancer, Lynn.  1998.  Reconcilable Differences: Confronting Beauty, Pornography, and the Future of Feminism.  Berkeley: University of California Press. 

 Cohen, Jean.  1996.  “Democracy, Difference, and the Right to Privacy.”  Democracy and Difference, ed. Seyla Benhabib.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

 Mink, Gwendolyn.  2000.  Hostile Environment: The Political Betrayal of Sexually Harassed Women.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Morton, Andrew.  1999.  Monica’s Story.  New York: St. Martin’s Press.

 Oreskes, Michael.  1999.  “That Woman.”  New York Times Book Review April 4, 6.

 Pateman, Carole.  1989.  “Feminist Critiques of the Public/Private Dichotomy.”  The Disorder of Women.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.

 Roiphe, Katie.  1998.  “Monica Lewinsky, Career Woman.”  The New York Times, September 15, .

 Zahra, Tara.  1999.  “The Feminist Gap.”  American Prospect (January):20.






[i] In one of the more memorable quips to emerge from the reams of commentary on the scandal, Alan Dershowitz coined the term “sexual McCarthyism” to describe Starr’s tactics.

[ii] For an extended discussion of the public/private split in liberalism, see Benn and Gaus (1983) and Pateman (1989). 

[iii] The frequency with which this “silence” was noted leads one to wonder whether the general public might not prefer to talk about feminists not talking than to just let feminists talk.

[iv] Roiphe frequently is more often labeled a “post-feminist” than an “anti-feminist.”  However, since most of her work is dedicated to criticizing feminists rather than to constructing an alternative account of feminism, “anti-feminism” seems the more appropriate label.