As the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries draw closer, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is back in our lives, but not in the charming way it was in 2010, when in the film Easy A, Emma Stone, playing a high school senior, sought to gain the attention of the boys in her class by pretending she was a modern version of Hawthorne’s adulterous heroine, Hester Prynne.
The Scarlet Letter has become relevant because Donald Trump is out to make Bill Clinton’s sexual history fair game in his presidential campaign. Since Hillary Clinton has charged him with having a “penchant for sexism,” Trump has continued to reference the former president’s sexual past. The sins of the husband, as far as Trump is concerned, should be visited upon the wife.
Unlike Kevin Steele, the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, district attorney who is seeking to bring Bill Cosby to justice on charges of sexual assault, Trump has no interest in righting past wrongs. He simply wants to embarrass a political opponent by digging up an old scandal.
The problem is the ethics of Trump’s attack have been debated in terms of what is fair to the Clintons. That’s what has concerned The Washington Post’s liberal columnist Ruth Marcus and The New York Times’s conservative columnist Ross Douthat.
Such thinking misses the point. If Trump is successful, the primary victims of his attack are not going to be Bill Clinton, whose record as a two-term president is widely known, and Hillary Clinton, who provides a night-and-day contrast with Trump on women’s issues. Those who stand to suffer most from Trump’s personal attack are the women linked to Bill Clinton. Their private lives are once again going to be tabloid fodder.
It is their re-victimization that calls to mind Hawthorne’s classic, nineteenth-century masterpiece. In The Scarlet Letter there is only one victim of sexual shaming—Hester Prynne, the beautiful Puritan who has born a child out of wedlock as a result of her relationship with the young Boston minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. Indeed, even after Dimmesdale publicly confesses that he has been Hester’s lover, her life does not get any easier.
Hester finds peace only after Dimmesdale dies and she returns to her native England to raise her daughter away from those who know her history. Her flight back to Europe constitutes her new beginning, but in this day of the internet and social media, no such escape is possible for the women linked to Bill Clinton. The kind of privacy reporters once accorded Lucy Mercer Rutherford and President Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy and the women he romanced during his White House years no longer exists.
Monica Lewinsky, who was just twenty-two when she first met Bill Clinton and is now in her forties, has, as she observed in a recent TED lecture, “The Price of Shame,” continued to have her privacy intruded upon as a result of her youthful relationship to the former president.
Trump gives no indication of being worried by the collateral damage his attack on Bill Clinton’s past sex life will do. That leaves only the media and Trump’s conservative backers with the influence to get Trump to back off from doing more damage to women who never sought to be public figures.
The rest of us can opt not to vote for Trump in the Republican primaries, or, should he win those, oppose him in the presidential election. But that amounts to doing too little too late.
At the end of The Scarlet Letter, after her daughter has married, Hester’s life takes one more turn. She goes back to Boston to spend her remaining years providing aid and comfort to a new generation of Puritan women who feel their lives have taken a wrong turn as a result of their relationships with men. It’s a noble decision on Hester’s part, but the decision comes with a high price. On her return to Boston Hester lives by herself in the isolated cottage she previously occupied. She even resumes wearing her old scarlet letter, believing any chance for normalcy is beyond her reach.
The women associated with Bill Clinton have not gone to such extremes, but most of them have tried to resume the private lives they had before they were thrust into the national spotlight. They are owed the right to continue those private lives.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of American and English Fiction in the 19th Century.