Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Feminists and Cheating

This is, I believe, the first time I've blogged about the Clintons' marriage, but it's probably not the last.

Senator Clinton on her marriage:
I know the truth of my life and of my marriage, my relationship and partnership, my deep abiding friendship with my husband. It's been enormously supportive to me through most of my life. Now obviously we've had challenges as everybody in the world knows. “But I never doubted that it was a marriage worth investing in even in the midst of those challenges,” she says, “and I'm really happy that I made that decision. Again, not a decision for everybody. And I think it's so important for women to stand up for the right of women to make a decision that is best for them.
She's right, of course, with that last sentence. And yet, what have women - what have feminists - had to say about Clinton's decision not to divorce her husband?

Many on all sides of the ideological divide have suggested that the only reason Clinton stayed married was because she wanted to stay "politically viable." OK, she's a public person; speculation is expected. Ugly, perhaps, but expected. (My personal speculation is that this marriage is - and probably all marriages are - more complicated than that.)

Some feminists have suggested that it's wrong, always wrong, for a woman to stay with a man who's had an affair.

This essay is typical of some of the comments I've read:
If Hillary acts as she does -- stands by her man -- because she loves him or her daughter too much, then her claim to being a feminist is open to serious question. . . . If feminists and the women's movement feel let down by the present sexual scandal, they have both Clintons to blame, not just Bill Clinton.
Right! Because being a feminist means demanding a simple, perfect relationship. And if your relationship becomes - gasp! - complicated, then you must end it immediately to maintain your feminist credentials.

I'm not here to defend whether or not Hillary Clinton is a feminist, or a liberal. I'm simply pointing out the ignorance and privilege of suggesting that anyone outside of a marriage has the right to determine its value to the partners. [Fortunately, it seems that feminists do get to be happily married, after all.]

It all goes back to the argument of choice. Some choices aren't feminist, even though those choices might be made by feminists. The choice to shave one's armpit hair, for example, is not a feminist choice, but it's a choice that I - a feminist! - make several times a week.

I'm not willing to put marriage in that bucket. I think that marriages are complicated things. I think that "adultery" can vary in definition from relationship to relationship (Does it have to be sex? What if it's virtual sex? What if it's an intense emotional connection only? What if it's a serious commitment to a non-human other, like work or sports? What if it's a serial physical act without emotional attachment?)

And I'm not willing to look at this marriage from way outside and say: she's an idiot for staying. She can't be a feminist because she stayed. Any woman who stays with any man who cheats is a doormat.

Ignorance informs comments like that. Ignorance about the myriad dynamics that go into a relationship.

I don't know the truth of what goes on in the Clintons' marriage, or even in my best friend's marriage. I know what they claim to be true, and I can believe them or not. I don't know if any couple should stay together or divorce.

I choose to let the people involved relationships make that decision for themselves.


Orange said...

I agree, Sarahlynn. If someone can accept their spouse despite cheating (whether it's truly "cheating" or more like polyamory with the spouse's knowing consent), that's their business. Yes, sexual fidelity is part of a big romantic fantasy of marriage, but marriage is so much more, too: partnership, friendship, love, common goals, not being able to imagine growing old without each other.

I read a two-woman blog where the second person isn't someone I e-know like I do the first person. The second woman has a personal blog, too, where she's written about her husband's sexual addiction. She has made the choice to stay married and work out the problems with him. Isn't that what wedding vows say, too? For better or for worse?

And of course, if a cheating spouse is an asshole on other fronts, then maybe divorce makes the most sense. But I don't see that cheating = mandatory divorce.

Disclaimer: Have always been monogamous and suspect my husband has, too.

Psycho Kitty said...

Very nicely put.

I find it interesting, too, that fidelity is such a hot point in this type of judgement. That's a very American thing, and I think (after as you probably know, MUCH rumination) that it's related to this weird leftover Puritanism and the way we connect such moral judgements to women in particular. Are you fat? Then you're morally weak. Has your husband been unfaithful? Then you're morally weak. Are your kids a little wild? Then you're morally weak.

Which makes it particularly odd to me that so many self-proclaimed feminists, who should be fighting that whole "blame Eve" vibe, tend to spend so much time pointing the finger at women.

Hmm. Stop making me think so early in the morning! :)

stljoie said...

I can't imagine my husband cheating, but then he isn't in an international spotlight...moths attracted to the fire sort of thing. But, as wonderful and as intimate as our sexuality is it does not define our marriage. It is a reflection of our friendship and love. But lust does happen and without those reflections.

Jessica said...

Yes, yes...YES

Sarahlynn said...

Orange, yeah, every time I try to write about this, I get bogged down by feeling like I need to add exemptions for abusive relationships, open relationships, polyamorous relationships, etc. Then I decided that - duh - and so I left that out. Cheating: whatever that means to a particular couple (or group). Abuse: I am not suggesting that there are healthy reasons that anyone should stay in an abusive relationship.

PK, interesting! (And it makes me realize what a lot of Puritan I have left in me.)

STLJoie, that's lovely.

Hi, Jessica. : )

Seasonal said...

I think when the whole Monica scandal broke, I felt horrible for all involved because it was such a public humiliation. I also was relatively newly married at the time, and I think I was a lot more judgmental.

Time has passed, we've grown together as a couple, we've had kids, I've grown (hopefully) wiser, and in that time I have embraced the idea that feminism IS all about the opportunity and the choice to make our own decisions. We shouldn't be judging other women because they choose to stay in a situation that we may disagree with, how can we know the whole story? For me, it's honestly a choice issue, and being able to support any woman in those choices she makes in her life that are right _for her_.