Hillary Clinton. Melania Trump. Carrie Symonds. They’re all women who are in relationships with problematic men. Powerful men who have treated other women (and perhaps them) terribly. And so, rightly or wrongly, these women find themselves being asked to answer for the sexual misdemeanours and political aberrations of their husbands and boyfriends.
Is Hillary Clinton really a feminist if she implicitly sanctioned the vilification of Monica Lewinsky – who was just 22 years old at the time – after her husband cheated on her? Is Melania okay? You’d have to be not okay to stay married to Donald "Just Grab 'Em By The Pussy" Trump, right? What are we supposed to make of environmental campaigner Carrie Symonds? Do we want to copy her £120 Ghost dress or do we question her because she chooses to be with Boris Johnson?
When it was revealed in the autumn of 2018 that 31-year-old Carrie Symonds and 55-year-old Boris Johnson were indeed in a relationship, no one was quicker to dump on her than left-wing Twitter. At the same time, she faced a sexist onslaught from right-wing tabloids who had trawled the internet for as many pictures of her partying as they could possibly find.
Nobody really knew what to make of her. A perfectly woke liberal millennial who has championed environmental causes through her work was dating Boris Johnson, the enfant terrible of the Tory party, a notorious philanderer who promised his country the impossible in order to bring about his beloved Brexit.
Before he was prime minister, Johnson once reportedly boasted "I haven’t had a wank for 20 years". At the time, he had recently been caught cheating on then-wife, Marina Wheeler, for the umpteenth time with a young education journalist called Anna Fazackerley. He and Wheeler are now divorcing.
The general consensus was that if Symonds wanted to get involved with that, it was her call. And then a potential domestic violence incident was reported by neighbours following a "loud altercation" at her flat in south London.
Symonds was allegedly heard yelling "get off me", "get out of my flat". In the aftermath, in order to protect their man – their favourite contender in the Conservative leadership contest – Conservative MPs and right-wing commentators drew close, circling around Johnson and telling the world that an altercation at home is private. Symonds’ neighbours were vilified for calling the police and accused of being Corbynite moles who had raised the alarm for political reasons and not, as they said, because they were genuinely concerned by shouting so loud their gut instincts compelled them to do something.
It was depressing. No, we don't know exactly what happened but we do know that two women are killed every week by a current or former partner in England and Wales. We know that one in four women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. And this was not any partner – this was a man who wanted to be prime minister.
I hoped that Symonds would say something. Anything. We're the same age. Maybe she was different. If it really had been a "lovers' tiff", what a platform to have, to use to encourage people to report any incident which they had even the faintest suspicion could be domestic violence because it might just save a life.
Is this a country in which women are seen (when it is required symbolically) but not heard while their partners do as they please?
She said nothing. She disappeared, reappearing only in obviously staged photos of her silently holding Johnson’s hand in an overgrown garden. Was she okay? Was that British Camelot? A country in which women are seen (when it is required symbolically) but not heard while their partners do as they please.
But then I reminded myself that we shouldn’t make her responsible for her boyfriend. This is where we always come back to, isn’t it? This is what #MeToo was, what #WhyIDidn’tReport was – another opportunity for a woman to tell her story, to do the emotional heavy lifting while a man was given a free pass by everyone around him.
We expect women to explain, justify and be accountable. It is our job, always, to offer proof and evidence of what has or hasn’t happened to us and we know that we will be judged no matter what we do or say.
We’ve been talking a lot about male power, privilege and the abuse of it since Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement went global, drawing together the disparate strands of multiple feminisms in 2017. We had long known that women stand by problematic men but the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s abusive exploits suddenly shone a spotlight on his now ex-wife, Marchesa designer Georgina Chapman. It begged the question: What do we do with the women attached to men who abuse their power?
How could she NOT have known? The public gallery crowed. Worse, did she know and look the other way because of the lifestyle afforded to her by her marriage? Eventually, Vogue editor Anna Wintour stepped in, not only by giving Chapman a glossy "Life After Weinstein" interview which ran to more than 5,000 words, but by penning an accompanying editor’s letter in which she said: "One should not hold a person responsible for the actions of his or her partner."
Ask Hillary Clinton what she thinks about this, though, and you’ll get a different answer. How could she stand on a world stage and call for Donald Trump to be investigated for sexual misconduct in light of her own husband’s actions just two decades earlier? It gave the cries of "hypocrite" a credence they hardly deserved, it undermined her and, above all, it suggested that she was someone who had and always would have a huge blind spot in her judgment. She stood by her husband as he was exposed for lying to his country while holding the office of president, and she never left.
When asked by CBS whether her husband should have stood down after his affair, she said "absolutely not". When the interviewer followed up by asking, "It wasn’t an abuse of power?" she replied, "No, no."
I wanted to get behind Hillary, so many did. I couldn’t help but feel something – goosebumps and butterflies, the physical manifestations of hope – when she spoke. She was the world’s only available ballast against the instability of a Donald Trump presidency. She invoked future generations of women in her speeches, she knew how significant she would be. We knew too. No symbolism was spared in the planning of her would-be victory party, which was meant to be held underneath a glass ceiling that never shattered, at New York's Jarvis Centre.
But Bill was 27 years older than Monica Lewinsky. He was one of, if not the most powerful man in the world. She was an intern. He lost very little. She was publicly shamed. Her entire life defined by him, forever, to the extent that she has become a byword for ejaculation. In "Partition" Beyoncé says: "Oh he so horny, yeah he want to fuck/He bucked all my buttons, he ripped my blouse/He Monica Lewinski'd all on my gown."
Post #MeToo, Lewinsky has emerged not only as a survivor of the shame showered on her for becoming involved with a powerful man but as an advocate for other women without platforms on which to defend themselves. Writing in Vanity Fair she said: "Now, at 44, I’m beginning to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern."
I remember the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I was 10 years old when the story broke. I remember how people talked about her. I remember something about a cigar. I remember my mum’s friends saying things like: "Well, you know what younger women are like." I remember that thousands of words were written about a blow job she had given him, by a male lawyer called Kenneth Starr.
But powerful, supposedly feminist women rained down on her too, perhaps to defend and protect Hillary. I’ve been tempted to do it when a friend is wronged by a man who is not worthy of her, haven’t you? We’ve been conditioned to blame other women, to see them as a threat, as competition.
What was deemed "the right thing to do in the '90s" for Hillary – stand by your man in the face of a scandal – may well have lost her favour two decades later, when her turn to run for president finally came.
There is no doubt that her marriage to Bill is not the only thing that lost Hillary Clinton that election. Equally, there can be no doubt that the acerbic vitriol which has been thrown at her – from both the left and the right – smacks of sexism. Nonetheless, Clinton hasn’t shied away from any of it. She wrote a book-length apology called What Happened? In it, she acknowledged "a lot of people – millions and millions of people – decided they just didn’t like me."
It makes for uncomfortable reading. "I have tried to learn from my own mistakes," she goes on. "There are plenty, as you’ll see in this book, and they are mine and mine alone."
Are we supposed to sympathise with her? To feel a bit sorry for her? Are we allowed? After all, she is an adult. She has enough agency to run for president, she has to be accountable too. In so many people’s minds, Hillary was an extension of Bill and his actions. But ought we not try and separate a woman from her husband? Is that not a cornerstone of feminism? Or do we forget everything we know, as human beings ourselves, about difficult relationships, about the messiness of love, and condemn a woman who has a problematic partner because, in the end, it’s her choice? She could, after all, have left him but perhaps his power itself was the draw.
How many women do you know who have not only stood by but been forced to defend their male partners after infidelity? Who wins in the end? Rarely her. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex: "A man attaches himself to woman – not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself." And yet a woman, when she is attached to a man, so often finds it anything but enjoyable. Regardless of her politics. Fittingly, de Beauvoir’s feminist legacy has been called into question both because of her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre who was, by all accounts, not great with other women and because in her letters she reveals that she slept with her young female students.
We like to think that people are easy to categorise. That they are either great or terrible, good or evil. But de Beauvoir shows us that someone’s work and life, while entwined, can exist separately.
Can the same be true of women who stay in relationships with problematic political men? In answer to the question "Do we side with Hillary or Monica?" what if it’s possible that they were both wrong and wronged? Are we able to do the mental gymnastics required to hold two contradictory ideas in our head at once?
And how does our answer shift from situation to situation? Perhaps part of the difficulty with Clinton is that she does not easily fit the age-old dyad we like to define women by. She is neither a Madonna nor a whore. She is not purely good or evil. She is human and complicated. She was at once a ray of hope – as close as anyone has ever been to becoming America’s first woman president – and more of the same: a member of a wealthy establishment political dynasty.
Our collective consciousness is short-circuited by Melania. She seems reluctant to touch her husband – a man who wants to roll back abortion rights and calls himself "strongly pro life" – and yet she has defended his sexist comments as "boy talk".
Who is more problematic? Melania or Hillary? Can we even compare them? After all, beyond being married to presidents and the fact that they are women, they have nothing in common. Except, perhaps, the fact that they feel they are hard done by.
Last year, Melania gave a television interview. At the time, Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump’s favoured Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, were breaking. Ford’s life was being turned upside down and the fallout was, once again, lighting a fire. Women were expressing their rage and pain through #WhyIDidn’tReport.
Melania was standing in front of the pyramids in Egypt, her outfit heavily referencing Indiana Jones, when she said, "I support the women and they need to be heard" as long as they "show the evidence". Women all over the world wanted to scream. There it was again, the burden of being expected to show proof.
And then, without missing a beat, Melania said: "I could say I’m the most bullied person in the world."
What the hell are we supposed to do with that? If it’s possible, Melania Trump has inspired more bewilderment than Hillary Clinton.
How do you solve a problem like Melania? What does Melania really think? Poor Melania, pray for her. Melania Trump doesn’t want to be first lady. Blink twice if you need help Melania. Is Melania Stepford fembot? Free Melania. Fuck Melania. Melania enables Donald Trump.
Can we ever separate Melania Trump from her husband? Should we even try? We try to give Melania a story because she surprises us, in the age of oversharing, by refusing to tell one. We want to believe that she doesn’t really want to be there, that’s why #freemelania has trended so many times. We want to believe that because feminism becomes more complicated when we are forced to acknowledge that women are not necessarily feminists by virtue of their gender, that they – just like men – are capable of doing sexist things or supporting sexist ideas because it is lucrative or beneficial for them to do so. After all, let’s not forget one of the key demographics that voted for Trump: white women.
Women betray other women all the time. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, there was one feminist voice of reason: the writer and author Barbara Ehrenreich. She wrote a piece in 1998 called "The Week Feminists Got Laryngitis", criticising her contemporaries – namely Gloria Steinem – for saying nothing.
Her message rings as true today as it did then. "Someone needs to tell this woman," she wrote of Hillary, "that the first time a wife stands up for an allegedly adulterous husband, everyone thinks she's a saint. The second or third time, though, she begins to look disturbingly complicit."
To let the partners of badly behaved men off the hook is fundamentally unfeminist because it assumes that women do not have agency or a powerful capacity for self-interest in the same way that men do. And yet to ignore what they might have been through as a result of their proximity to that man is to lack sympathy.
Either way, the question remains: What do we do with women who stand by a problematic man? Can we feel empathy for them? Should we? These are not lofty hypothetical questions of feminism but very visceral questions about our basic humanity. Are these women complicit in their partners’ behaviour? Then again, aren’t we all?