Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Learning about Power--the Lack of It--and Monica Lewinsky

 By Kay Kendall

When I was growing up during the “Leave It to Beaver” era, as a young baby boomer I noticed many anomalies, things that made no sense to me. Off the top of my head, here’s a list of these things that happened for which I had no explanation:
*Grown women suffered wordlessly through derogatory remarks made about them by men. (Examples: All women are horrible drivers. My wife can’t even balance her checkbook. And so on and on ad nauseum.)
*The smutty jokes men often told made women feel uncomfortable (women got squirmy, that’s how I knew), but yet the women never objected.
*Teenage girls played dumb because they knew boys didn’t like smart or sassy females.
               While on the one hand I puzzled over such anomalies, on the other hand I never questioned some other patterns that were also curious. Here are some of the things I took in stride:
*Women cooked and served family meals, then cleaned up afterwards while men sat in the rumpus room and smoked, never lifting a finger to help.
*Men rarely took part in any child care.
*When a family went on an outing in a car, the head of the family—always the “man of the house”—drove the car.
I took those patterns for granted because they were like the air I breathed. But over and over again, I puzzled over why women did not, as a rule, speak up when something upset them. Also, how could men be so insensitive as to say harsh things about women as a class, as a group, when other women were present? Why oh why didn’t women object?
I had absolutely no concept—nada, zilch, zip—of what it meant to be part of a powerful group or class. Of how power was wielded and kept hold of, denying others access to power.
I grew up in a sheltered, almost swaddled environment. As a consequence I had the opposite of street smarts. My parents and four grandparents were genteel and mannerly, and they all hid from me any conflict that might arise.
My mother often said she wanted me to have a pleasant childhood, and avoiding any mention of nasty conflict—or real life, for that matter—certainly gave me a sanitized worldview. My nose was always in books. I was an only child. I learned about life by reading the advice columns of Ann Landers in the daily newspaper and about married relationships in the Ladies Home Journal. Its monthly feature entitled “Can This Marriage Be Saved” helped me develop my firm opinion that any union can be patched up, if you and your spouse just work at it hard enough and kept your heads cool and rational. If you needed extra help, then counsellors and shrinks were invaluable. There should be no stigma in using them.
Back then, if I had no concept of power, how could I understand that women lacked it? How could I have known that if you have no power, then you swallow a lot of guff, grief, anger, and just keep on going, smiling as you do the dishes, still smiling as you get badmouthed as being part of a stupid and silly group, i.e., all females.
“Don’t worry your pretty little head, little lady.” It’s all beyond you. You can’t complain.
Of course these are broad generalizations, but they hold up if you compare stark patterns of yesteryear to those of today.
These days I often think about the role of women while writing my work in progress, set in a women’s liberation group in 1969. For some of us it is difficult to remember what it was like, back before the women’s movement made inroads into our social patterns. Even women who were cognizant beings back them now have a hard time remembering. 
Here’s how I know. Sometimes members of my writing critique group gasp when I read from my WIP a fictionalized version of a scene I recall from my teen years, one that shows a sharp contrast between then and now in the way women were treated and expected to toe the line.
I am making it my job to remember. I dredge up and repurpose these memories now, every day, as I sit at my computer and imagine a world long gone. (And then, since this is a mystery, I throw in a murder, perhaps two. You’ll have to read to find out how many dead bodies pile up.)

Nancy Pelosi in 2013
A few years ago I read a long interview with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. She described how much women’s lives and possibilities have changed since she entered politics in the 1970s. She was heavily criticized for not staying home with her children. She was deemed an unfit mother and selfish, and to no one’s surprise, she lost her first election. When she ran for office the next time, however—some five years later, she won. Already by then—thanks to the women’s movement—attitudes towards women’s roles in society had changed a little bit.
Women had finally begun to band together and find their collective voices. Yes, there is strength in numbers—and in sisterhood. In strength comes power.
Female activists who had worked alongside men in the civil rights movement and the antiwar groups had learned how to mobilize and work to gain power.
And boy oh boy, did they learn in those previous movements that they were nobodies. Women’s subservient roles remained the same, even in how those egalitarian movements were run. Read the memoirs of female activists to learn their stories. Learn how they were relegated to fixing tea and coffee while the men argued over and made decisions, then carried them out. Thank goodness those days are long gone.
And yet, and yet . . .
Monica Lewinsky in 2013
That old, oh-so-sexist world is still with us today. Entrenched attitudes persist. Although men are by and large not as blatant about expressing sexist opinions anymore, just turn over a large metaphorical rock and then you will see, lo and behold, those same old sexist beliefs wiggling like dirty earthworms when they come into the light.
Speaking of hidden beings, I read today that Monica Lewinsky is breaking her silence. She has chosen to speak to a journalist from Vanity Fair about the horrible aftermath of her affair with President Clinton. Today he is riding high, called a talented rogue—you know, good ole Bill—while she remains the awful scarlet woman AKA slut, driven out of her country in order to live anonymously.   
 The Lewinsky interview appears in the June issue of Vanity Fair. It hits newsstands May 13, with the digital edition going live May 8. I for one will not wait for my subscription copy. I will read the digital version as soon as I can.
If a man’s reputation can recover, then a woman’s should also be able to do so. Barbara Walters said that Monica was the most unhappy person she knew, unable to recover from her scandal. I have sisterly love for  Monica and hope she will be able to attain at least a modicum of happiness.
The Clinton-Lewinsky affair remains to this day a perfect mash up of power and sexism. 


Kay Kendall is an international award-winning public relations executive who lives in Texas with her husband, four house rabbits, and spaniel Wills. A fan of historical mysteries, she wants to do for the 1960s what novelist Alan Furst does for Europe in the 1930s during Hitler's rise to power--write atmospheric mysteries that capture the spirit of the age.

Discover more about her at


  1. Hi Kay, Thank you for writing about this topic. You're right about the men escaping nearly unscathed while the women end up publicly humiliated. I keep thinking about the Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake incident at the Super bowl half time show. She has practically disappeared and he is enjoying his success. Both of them are talented but after the incident the public did not support her and her career suffered.

  2. Excellent example, Anjali! Same old, same old story, I am afraid. The news today is really full of the Lewinsky article to come so it will be interesting (and probably sad) to see how this scandal continues to play out.

  3. No matter how you feel about former President Clnton, the blame should've been put on him. She was so young--and just imagine her feelings when she thought that the President of the USA loved her! Of course he didn't, he just used her. He should've been the one humiliated, not her.

  4. Totally. And I always think what Monica's life would've been like if she had NOT kept that blue dress. History would have played out very differently. Ugly stuff.

  5. He like, so many other presidents, was just positive he could get away with it--and in he did, didn't he?

  6. He did in the end, but at least he went through hell first. Alas, the country, his wife and daughter did too. My two cents...pressures on the modern day president are so great that stress settles into the cracks in the person's psyche and splits it wide open. Well, I guess in general, stress does that.

    Here is NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd's take on the revived Monica L. stuff. Believe it or not, I just threw her into the end of my post as an example...and in the 24 hours since I wrote this, she has taken off again like a shot.


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