It’s a testament to how important feminism has become to electoral politics in recent years that Republicans cast around for any way possible, no matter how thin, to deflect the “war on women” accusation. (Short, of course, of not waging the war on women anymore.) Also, too, that being seen as a champion of women’s rights is increasingly good for a politician’s profile, as demonstrated by Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton gaining in popularity after highlighting their own histories of supporting women’s equality.
Little wonder, then, that many on the right have pounced, in a pique of bad faith, on the revelation that Clinton defended, in her role as a public defender, a man accused of rape in 1975. There is a clear hope here that voters can be tricked into thinking that supporting the constitutionally mandated right of the accused to an adequate defense can be confused with supporting the crime in question, in order to insinuate that Clinton isn’t as feminist as she appears, which is why the right-wing Washington Free Beacon argued that the case “calls into question Clinton’s narrative of her early years as a devoted women and children’s advocate in Arkansas.”
But of course, that’s pure and obvious nonsense, as the right to a defense is enshrined in the constitution and offered to all people accused of crimes, including murder and robbery and kidnapping. The notion that “feminists” demand that rape should be exempted from these constitutional considerations and that the accused should go to jail without due process is a right-wing myth. As usual when conservatives play “gotcha” with the feminists, they are arguing more with feminists in their heads than the ones that live out in the real world.
Or, in many cases, understanding that feminists by and large do, in fact, support the right of accused rapists to an adequate defense in court, many people trying to make political hay out of this long-ago case have decided to comb over the details of the interview with Clinton done by Esquire in the 80s (though never published), in hopes that there’s some teeny-tiny thread they can pull to “prove” that she’s not as pro-woman as she seems. (The possibility that she is pro-woman is apparently discounted out of hand, perhaps because Clinton’s detractors find it implausible that anyone might actually care about women and assume that it is always a pose struck for political gain.)
The nits that Clinton detractors have picked are so inconsequential as to appear downright desperate. Basically, the complaint is that Clinton sounds like a human being instead of a someone playing a role, and she periodically laughs at some of the absurd situations that you sometimes find yourself in when you work as a public defender. In particular, two laughs are being singled out as some kind of evidence of secret non-feminism on Clinton’s part. At one point, when discussing how the prosecution fumbled the case, Clinton laughs at their screw-up. At another point, Clinton laughs at her client, saying that he passed the polygraph test, “which forever destroyed my faith in polygraphs.”
Notably, Clinton does not actually laugh at the rape victim, so any anger over the laughter is not in defense of the victim. The notion that anyone who has had to do a job dealing with rapists is not allowed to ever have a laugh about the absurdities of the work itself—or the lies that rapists come up with to deflect blame—is a notion clearly invented just to hold Clinton to it. And is a notion that will be abandoned the second it’s not politically expedient in the future.
There have also been attempts to start a controversy over the fact that Clinton explored the option of trying to discredit the victim, which is a fairly standard defense strategy of accused rapists. She did not, in the end, actually use this as a defense, because she talked her client into pleading guilty to a lesser charge instead. But while it’s always unpleasant to hear defense attorneys try to sow doubt about an accuser’s trustworthiness, the blame for this should not lay on the shoulders of those who have an obligation to defend their clients. The blame should lay on society for perpetuating the myth that false accusations are common, for without that myth, defense attorneys would have to find another strategy to try to convince juries.
What is disturbing about this entire story is not that Clinton did her job as a defense attorney or that she had a laugh about some of it, like every other working person since the beginning of time. What is disturbing is that the conservatives flogging this have demonstrated that they don’t see sexual violence as a serious issue so much as a “card” that liberals play for political gain, a card that conservatives very much want to use for themselves.
It appears the right has learned all the wrong lessons from Todd Akin’s unfortunate comments during the 2012 election about how “legitimate rape” never leads to pregnancy. “Legitimate rape” and other utterances by various Republican rape philosophers weren’t offensive because the politicians in question failed to take a somber tone. On the contrary, many of them were quite capable of mimicking a somber-faced pose while they said deeply horrible things. It was that they minimized the seriousness of rape and suggested that rape victims don’t deserve full human rights.
By treating rape like it’s a political game instead of a serious issue requiring serious policy interventions, conservatives who are flogging this story are damning themselves and not damning Clinton. Conservatives hammering at this story know full well that just because Clinton takes the right of the accused to an adequate defense seriously doesn’t mean she doesn’t take rape seriously. Indeed, Clinton herself is clear that this case made her realize how much more help rape victims need, and led her to start a rape crisis hotline in Fayetteville.
The desperate attempts to get Clinton’s name in a headline with the word “rape” bespeak of a conservative movement that can’t imagine that rape as anything but a hot button word to try to damn political opponents with, demonstrating a complete lack of awareness of what Clinton clearly understands, which is that it’s a serious crime with serious consequences for survivors. Feminists don’t criticize conservatives for rape-complacent or ever rape-apologetic statements or policies because they’re trying to score cheap political points. They very sincerely believe that these people stand in the way of justice for rape victims, often for very good reason. There is no reason to think that of Clinton.
Unlike the various conservatives who said glib or offensive things about rape victims and backed it up with policies that increase the suffering of rape victims, Clinton has no record of being insensitive to actual victims and has a long and distinguished record of helping women and girls around the world achieve equality. People who actually care about the wellbeing of women and girls can tell the difference. By trying to turn rape into nothing more but a talking point to make noise over, conservatives only show how little they understand about this very important political issue.