Over the past few weeks, as we’ve witnessed a wave of stories about Donald Trump’s penchant for harassing and assaulting women, there is one line of argument in his defense that’s become difficult to ignore: the idea that Democrats’ moral outrage about sexual assault tends to skip over allegations that are uncomfortably close to home. It may have been the height of right-wing hypocrisy to parade the women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misdeeds into the debate hall last week, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t effective.
Hillary Clinton’s decision not to comment directly on the Trump allegations has been interpreted both as totally reasonable — after all, Hillary has never been accused of assaulting anyone, and Bill is not running for president —and as a missed opportunity to call out Trump while also humanizing herself by frankly discussing the difficulties of marriage. But the more I watch this conversation unfold, the more I realize that this is not about how she should grapple with the issue. It’s about how we — both collectively and individually — respond to survivors whose stories are not politically convenient for us.
Like most people who find Trump loathsome and are excited to vote for Hillary, I haven’t wanted to discuss this at all — and not only because I’m sick of watching women being held accountable for their husbands’ misdeeds. With an openly racist accused rapist running as the other party’s nominee, it doesn’t seem like the right time to voice any of my concerns with Hillary as a candidate. Certainly not now, in the final weeks of a campaign that offers no room for nuance. And certainly not when it’s apparent that most of Trump’s defenders care more about defeating Hillary than about ensuring survivors’ voices are heard.
Let’s be clear: Trump’s defenders aren’t bringing up Hillary’s behavior in the ’90s because they’re interested in a nuanced conversation about rape culture and the many ways it’s perpetuated. However, that doesn’t mean such a conversation shouldn’t happen. It’s fair to discuss the power dynamics involved in the allegations against Bill Clinton, even though the accusations are several decades old, because abuses committed by influential men are by no means a thing of the past. It’s also fair to consider Hillary’s reaction to his behavior and to the women who came forward, along with the context for her actions.
Because this issue has been pushed to the fore by avowed Clinton-haters, it’s hard to get a handle on exactly what Hillary did 20 years ago. “We have to destroy her story,” she reportedly said in 1991 of Connie Hamzy, one of the first women to come forward with a tale of Bill’s lechery. According to Carl Bernstein’s biography, Hillary also supported the “aggressive, explicit direction of the campaign to discredit” Gennifer Flowers, and was onboard with the strategy to brand her as a “bimbo” and a “pathological liar.” Juanita Broaddrick, who accused Bill of assaulting her in 1978, told BuzzFeed that she interpreted a thank-you from Hillary as pressure to stay silent. When Broaddrick went public with her story in 1998, the Clintons denied the assault. Broaddrick signed an affidavit saying she wasn’t assaulted, then later said her original story was true. Last year, when Hillary was asked about Broaddrick’s accusations, she said, “Well, I would say that everybody should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence.”
I’m not the only ardent Hillary supporter who has been struggling with the question of whether it’s right to demand she account for her behavior back then, and whether it’s right for her behavior to be held to modern standards. Back in January, the Times reported that prominent Hillary backers had privately expressed discomfort with how the Clintons had discredited Bill’s accusers. Hillary’s long career in the public eye has left her in an uncomfortable position as cultural attitudes have shifted. The way many of us understand sexual assault and the abuse of power dynamics has changed dramatically since the ’90s, as has the way we think about marriage. “Boys will be boys” excuses still crop up, but are not dominant the way they once were. Divorce is less taboo than it’s ever been.
For Hillary, believing Bill’s accusers first would have meant abandoning their marriage and their shared political goals. “Hillary doesn’t have to stay with Bill Clinton,” her friend Linda Bloodworth-Thomason said in 1992. “She could get to the Senate or possibly the White House on her own — and she knows it.” But by most accounts, she loves him. If feminists and Democratic women were willing to look the other way on Bill’s woman problems because we liked him for other reasons, then how hard must it have been for the woman married to him?
Hillary’s difficult position is more universal than her critics — or her supporters — care to admit. The horrible truth is that, in some ways, we have all been ’90s Hillary at some point. The world is full of men like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton who have remained powerful despite their abusive behavior toward women. We swear that we wouldn’t vote for an accused sexual predator or stay married to one, but many of us maintain social ties or continue to work with men who have harassed women. Some of us have questioned survivors’ stories when the accused is someone we love.
We should examine Hillary’s actions both in the ’90s and today, but it’s disingenuous to call her out without acknowledging the ways in which we are all complicit in rape culture. For all of us, whether we’re running for president or not, the test is not how loudly we champion the people who accuse our enemies, but how compassionately we respond to those who come forward against our friends.