Monica Lewinsky may always be most famous for her affair with President Bill Clinton, but for the first time in decades, and perhaps for the first time at all, the 41-year-old’s voice is being heard. At the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Summit, she wanted to make it clear: Her identity, she said, had been hijacked. “It was a form of identity theft,” she said.
She is emerging as a torch holder for cyberbullying victims, today counts nearly 80,000 Twitter followers and was recently nominated for one of journalism’s most prestigious awards for simply telling her story.
There’s acclaim for women who stand up and speak up and don’t necessarily do it with cordiality first in mind—and there are a TON of examples.
Lewinsky aims to combat defamation, humiliation and slut-shaming by telling her story. How apt, as online activism and feminism are experiencing a golden age today. But if you lived through the 90s, you may be wondering, Monica Lewinsky a feminist hero? How on Earth can this be?
It’s worth revisiting the history to understand what’s happening today, especially as those, like myself, who came of age that decade remember it with the nostalgia now monetized in Spice Girls Halloween costumes and Buzzfeed quizzes. Rememer: In 1998 when the scandal broke, the political fringe aiming to impeach the President for sex weren’t alone in demonizing the White House intern.
She was bitchified and admonished by influencers and mainstream media alike. Newsweek faulted her “low-cut blouses” and “saucy manner.” Maureen Dowd labeled her a “ditsy, predatory White House intern.” Betty Friedan called her “a little twerp.”
In the 1990s, such vitriol was nothing new. In fact, the entire decade was marked by an epidemic—the bitchification and vilification of American women. Calling a thought leader, or high level official “a bitch” or the equivalent seems unthinkable today, but play the 90s VHS tape back, and that’s exactly what you’ll see, repeatedly.
Critics deemed Anita Hill “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” in 1991 after she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Women and conservatives attacked Hillary Clinton for refusing to bake cookies, or stand by her man like Tammy Wynette. Roseanne Barr embodied and eroded the domestic goddess trope in the early ‘90s sitcom named after her—and was met with hostility for it. Nirvana fans blamed Courtney Love for her husband, Kurt Cobain’s, suicide. The first woman attorney general, Janet Reno, was harangued as “ugly” and “a man dressed in women’s clothing” throughout her tenure. Serbian rebels stoned the motorcade of first the woman secretary of state, Madeline Albright, in 1997 because a war was going on, but they did so chanting, “bitch.”
Such name-calling, shame and humiliation weren’t limited to famous women. Throngs of others had their identities stolen from them in the ‘90s, to borrow Lewinsky’s words. The Girls Gone Wild video series coaxed countless real girls into willing porn stars, selling their mistakes. Reality television—like MTV’s The Real World, which premiered in 1992—taught America women were stock characters of bitches, sluts and backstabbers, rather than dynamic individuals. In these and other forms of entertainment, women were sold “Girl Power,” emblazoned on T-shirts and notebooks, that wasn’t actually power at all, but rather, a marketing tool. Bleak indeed.
But, bubbling beneath the surface of 90s bitchification, a transformation was taking place. Lewinsky diagnosed herself “patient zero” in the disease of public humiliation and Internet smear. But she wasn’t patient zero at all. She was more of a turning point. Her vilification helped ultimately seed expanded opportunity and empowerment for women. Women were insulted and slandered for speaking up in the ‘90s, but they didn’t quit doing it. And now, the tone of the populace has shifted.
Today, women leaders like Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Elizabeth Warren aren’t “shrill bitches.” Instead, they’re poised to lead the free world. Subversive entertainers like Roseanne Barr paved the way for boundary pushers like Chelsea Handler and Amy Schumer. And Monica Lewinsky isn’t an “opportunistic slut” clawing back into the spotlight. She’s a serious woman with an authentic and important mission—to combat online cyberbullying, the explosion and democratization of what she suffered at the hand of the mainstream media in the late 1990s.
There will always be those who attack women for showing up in public. The Internet, after all, gives anyone a voice, even when it’s repulsive. Lewinsky is still ogled by political media and bullied, too. That she would even attend the gala to potentially accept an award fo which she was nominated—that made the news. Piers Morgan called her and her anti-cyberbullying campaign “distasteful” and “disingenuous.” Timothy Stanley accused her of being “shameless” and making a “grab for TV time.”
But more and more, those that shame and bitchify for that purpose alone are outed—by individuals and online activists, yes, but also in the press. “Stop slut-shaming Monica Lewisnky!” urged Emily Shire after she penned the tell-all in Vanity Fair. The Internet can still be a harsh place for women, but it’s also home to supportive spaces for victims, viral campaigns to fight injustice, and lots of kindness.
Today, other voices can be louder than the ones shouting"bitch!”
Monica Lewinsky isn’t patient zero, but her resurrection marks a new order. Women comprise nearly half the workforce, top 100 seats in the 113th congress, earn the majority of college degrees and occupy business leadership roles in greater numbers than ever before. Today, when bitchification happens, we call it what it is. Lewinsky and her predecessors didn’t suffer for nothing.