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4 March 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 9:43am

If the Clinton case happened today, Monica Lewinsky would not feel so alone

For all that social media can be a cesspit, it has also enabled women’s anger to creep past our cultural gatekeepers.

By Helen Lewis

Feminists, assemble! I bring great news! Steve Bannon – yes, that Steve Bannon, the one who sees himself as the wizard behind Donald Trump’s Oz – has noticed that women are Up To Something. “The top seven stories today are all guys getting blown up,” he told the journalist Michael Lewis recently, having flicked on cable news and seen an item about Harvey Weinstein and other celebrities getting walloped with sex assault allegations. “I think it’s going to unfold like the Tea Party, only bigger… It’s not Me Too. It’s not just sexual harassment. It’s an anti-patriarchy movement. Time’s up on 10,000 years of recorded history. This is coming. This is real.”

Wow, big talk, Big Steve. An anti-patriarchy movement is coming? Someone wake up Mary Wollstonecraft, she’s going to want to hear about this.

Bannon’s words tickled me not just because of their naivety – feminism, after all, has racked up the odd victory already, from getting women the vote to the criminalisation of wife-beating – but also because his grudging respect feels strangely validating. Hey girls, America’s premier exponent of racially tinged culture wars thinks we’re impressive campaigners! Let’s… use that power to oppose him and everything he stands for.

It’s always hard to tell how much is changing when you’re in the middle of a cultural moment. Last week, I had the singularly unpleasant experience of watching one of my tweets – about the double standards in clothing between men and women – going viral. It prompted a number of the internet’s least charming gentlemen to send me photos of myself where I looked particularly grass-fed and market-ready, pointing out that I’m probably just saying these things because I’m fat and jealous. (Not sure why they felt the need to attach photos, chaps, I have working eyes and own a mirror.)

At times like that, it feels as though we are stuck in a depressing cycle of a millimetre’s advance followed by a brutal backlash. But when it comes to sex and relationships, something really has changed, and maybe the Steve Bannons of the world are right to stand back and marvel. The Second Wave of feminism gave women the words to describe what was happening to them behind closed doors – domestic violence, date rape, sexual harassment – but it was still hard for them to forge alliances in a less connected world. The internet, and social media in particular, has done something incredible: it has lowered the barrier to speaking out by showing people just how many others have similar stories to tell.

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In a recent essay for Vanity Fair, Monica Lewinsky wrote about her long and difficult reckoning with the very public exposure of her affair with Bill Clinton. One of the prominent women in the #MeToo movement had sent her a message, which simply read: “I’m sorry you were so alone.” It undid her, Lewinsky wrote: “Isolation is such a powerful tool to the subjugator. And yet I don’t believe I would have felt so isolated had it all happened today.”

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Lewinsky, at 44, has only just begun to process what happened to her – and how the idea of consent is complicated when one of you is an intern and the other a president. The Clinton impeachment was an unmissable opportunity for swathes of the American media to demonise her as an unstable stalker, or to defend Bill by writing her out of the story and demonising Hillary Clinton instead, calling the First Lady a frigid ball-buster who had driven her husband away. It wasn’t just “the patriarchy” that did this, but prominent female columnists. When few women succeed, the temptation towards complicity is enormous.

That pattern would not repeat itself today. If – horror – we learned that Donald Trump was sleeping with a White House intern, the right-wing echo chamber would call the woman a strumpet, but surely no one halfway sensible would suck their teeth in moral condemnation of a “homewrecker who led him on”. The Lewinsky of 2018 would not be so horribly, terribly alone.

For all that social media can be a cesspit, it has also enabled women’s anger to creep past our cultural gatekeepers: a million tributaries flowing together into a river that does feel genuinely threatening. Responding to Lewinsky’s essay, the New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum said that “so many women are currently reinterpreting experiences from their teens/twenties when they’re 40+. It’s hard to see certain experiences for what they are until decades later.” That’s certainly how I felt when watching Greta Gerwig’s extraordinary coming-of-age film, Lady Bird, which is set in 2002. In historical terms, a decade and a half is a blink of an eye. In cultural ones, it’s an aeon.

Unfulfilling teenage sex, fear of coming out as gay, the boredom of the last year of school… the concerns of Lady Bird – or Christine, as her parents called her – and her peers felt so resonant, and yet the film itself already feels like a period drama. Where we passed round illicit copies of More! magazine and pored over grainy sketches of “position of the fortnight”, today’s 17-year-olds can turn to the riotously frank work of Caitlin Moran, or the sex quizzes of BuzzFeed, or the how-to guides of Teen Vogue. Yes, they have to navigate a dating scene saturated in the misogynist tropes of internet porn, but like their Second Wave sisters, their vocabulary is growing and words are powerful.

Crucially, they also have each other. The biggest achievement of the feminist movement is generating safety in numbers. That’s why the ground has shifted so fast when it comes to subjects like harassment and sexual assault, because the existing structures relied so much on shame and silence to continue. Women have found each other; the whisper networks have spilled out into public; muttered warnings have finally been heard. So Steve Bannon is right: something is coming. And it is real. 

This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left