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Adulterous Patriarchs and Nasty Women

Sex, Marriage and the Recent History of Political Scandals

It is T minus 8 to election day, and once again I am asking: why are we talking about former Democratic Congressman and celebrity sexting champ Anthony Weiner?  And why did Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s top advisor, not separate from her cheating husband before embarking on a major political campaign? On Friday October 27, FBI Director James Comey announced that he is reopening the State Department email investigation because of Clinton emails on a computer seized as evidence in the August 29 2016 Weiner sexting scandal. This morning it is still unclear whether these electronic documents are new or duplicates of ones already reviewed, and it will probably be some time after the election before we know whether they have any significance at all.

We are officially back in political crazy town. As the late, great Joan Rivers used to say: “Can we talk?”

As a  feminist and a card carrying #nastywoman, I care deeply about whether Hillary Clinton is elected President eight days from now, and I am alarmed that Abedin ignored the time bomb in her home. However, questioning Abedin’s decision to remain with her husband after his prior sexting scandals is wildly unpopular among many in my social media circles. “Haven’t you ever stayed in a relationship too long?” they ask me. (Yes, but fortunately I wasn’t working on a Presidential campaign at the time.) Feminist journalists also frame Abedin as  an ordinary professional caught in a typically female work-life divide: they cite the paradox of her “desire to be a working mother,” assert that Abedin and Weiner are entirely separate people, and argue that “we can never know what goes on in other people’s relationships.”

All true. But — and I do not lack compassion for Huma Abedin —  she isn’t an ordinary working mother with a schmendrick of a husband. She is Hillary Clinton’s right hand, and because of that, should have actively avoided scandal and controversy, which meant getting rid of Mr. Stupid long before her boss became the nominee. That’s the bottom line. I don’t think compassion — or frustration with Comey’s puzzling decision to announce this investigation days before the election — should prevent us from pointing out that this psychodrama rearing its head a week before the election was completely preventable.

But how do we evaluate the role of gender inequality and sexism in this situation? After all, there are lots of political men who have made choices between work and family when sex scandals rear their ugly heads. You’ve seen them. They are the men who, a few times a year, get caught with their pants down around their ankles. They are the men standing in front of a camera with a wife, and perhaps a child or two old enough to cope with the shame. In lieu of trying to explain why they tried to pick up a dude in the men’s bathroom, these male politicians tell us (as if it were a choice) that they have decided “to spend more time with their families.” Nowadays, some of them even return to politics.

I understand why many of my feminist allies have come to believe that expecting Abedin to have chosen between politics and family is inherently sexist, and should be resisted on principle. The barrage of hatred and contempt aimed at Hillary Clinton, while similar in its volume and tone to the racism Barack Obama has endured, hits a sharp and personal nerve that many women work hard to ignore every day of the week. Now add motherhood to the mix:  even when they have willing partners to share the load, most working mothers, regardless of economic status, are constantly juggling emotions and schedules, torn between a job and a home. They get Huma Abedin.

Is Abedin especially scrutinized because she is a woman? It’s hard to say. No politician’s private life is off limits nowadays, and we can’t wish that genie back into the bottle. Furthermore, arguments that the turmoil between Abedin and Weiner is a private matter because marital life should be private represents a romance about marriage, not the reality. Marriage is a public institution, with public consequences. It is one through which Abedin and Weiner have sworn, in front of God and the state, to take responsibility for each other. To paraphrase one of Katherine Franke’s arguments in Wedlocked: the Perils of Marriage Equality (NYU Press, 2015), you can’t suddenly ignore that obligation when your spouse goes off the rails.

Focusing on sexism and the sacrosant privacy of marriage also ignores why Weiner’s sexting is being investigated. One of Weiner’s summer sexting friends is said to have been a 15 year old girl. A second adult woman, the Trump supporter who blew the whistle on the Sexter Formerly Known as Carlos Danger, received a signature Weiner crotch shot with the couple’s four year-old son inches away from Dad’s penis. Although these represent only two of the many sexts that finally caused Abedin to finally file for divorce, they are significant to the FBI because they may violate federal child pornography laws, as well as laws against the solicitation of minors.

Yet, as Abedin’s defenders point out, the press has shielded many male Presidents  – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jack Kennedy, and Lyndon Baines Johnson — who were spectacularly unfaithful to their wives (and at least one wife who was discreetly unfaithful to her husband.) What this leaves out, however, is that journalism has changed over the last four decades. Major newspapers had rules against covering all public figures’ private lives until the early 1970s, in part on principle and in part because doing so  distinguished resectable journalism from the tabloid press. For example, you can search The New York Times 1969 account of Mary Jo Kopechne’s death by drowning at Chappaquiddick without finding a single reference to, or speculation about, why she was in a married senator’s car at all.

It was men who brought us political sex scandals in the first place, and women are still rarely implicated in them except as collateral damage. Although political reporter Matt Bai maintains that Gary Hart’s affair with actress (now businesswoman) Donna Rice in 1988 was “the week politics went tabloid,” Watergate caused major newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post to rethink what news was fit to print. Women were usually the messengers, not the victims, of these early scandals. Decades before Wikileaks, reporters received regular midnight phone calls detailing White House crimes from Attorney General and Nixon confidante John Mitchell’s self-medicating wife Martha (a.k.a., “The Mouth of the South”). The first modern sex scandal occurred shortly after Watergate. Only weeks after Nixon’s resignation, Marion Clarke, editor of the Washington Post Sunday Magazine, met a blonde Congressional secretary named Elizabeth Ray on a Washington bound Amtrak. After a few drinks, the young woman confessed that she had slept “with half of Washington.” Her real job was to “date” men – donors, other congressmen, federal contractors – from whom her married boss and lover needed favors or information. “I can’t type, I can’t file, I can’t even answer the phone!” she told Clarke.

When Clarke approached editor Ben Bradlee at The Post, she learned that Watergate reporter Bob Woodward was already working on a similar story. Reporters believed that sex scandals would lead them to crimes, and referred to the work as a “Watergate mopping up operation.”  As they began to publish the Ray story in the fall of 1974, the Washington press corps nicknamed these reporters the “Pussy Posse,” a “beaver patrol” that spent its days “Dialing for Dollies.” Elizabeth Ray was on the payroll of Wayne Hays (D-OH), chair of the House Administrative Committee. A few weeks after the Hays story broke, the chairman of Ways and Means, Wilbur Mills (D-AR), was fished out of the Tidal Basin in Washington, where he had jumped to avoid reporters during a drunk driving arrest in the company of  exotic dancer Fanne “The Argentine Firecracker” Foxe. Both The Washington Post and The New York Times reported these stories, and both powerful men were forced to resign by the Democratic leadership.

In other words, the history of sex scandals is mostly male, and women’s increased participation in politics may carry the risk of being sucked into these media events. The good news for women is that, well before the Clintons hit the national scene, sex scandals — with or without criminal behavior — had become survivable. In 1983, congressman Gerry Studds (R-MA), was censured for an affair with a 17-year old male page, a charge which implied violations of both age of consent and sodomy laws; while Barney Frank was censured in 1989 because, unbeknownst to him, his male partner was running an escort service for bisexual men out of their apartment. Both men continued in politics until they chose to leave office.

So what might we fear from sexism in the political media? Despite Weiner’s recklessness, feminists should be concerned that Abedin’s potential resignation from the Clinton campaign, however justified, might send a signal that every time a woman aspires to higher office she and her family ought to be subject to endless scrutiny of her private life. In the coming years, I can also imagine that — like African American politicians – women will be more likely to be prosecuted when sex scandals uncover other crimes, no matter how minor. The vicious smear tactics and verbal terrorism to which Hillary Clinton has been subjected represent an admittedly new chapter in the history of sex in politics, one that is less a product of sexual behavior than of a click-bait media environment that thrives on innuendo, emotional drama, misogyny and violence.

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