For the last few days, we Americans have occupied the spectator seats at a match between candidates with competing views of what sexism really is, as well as when and how it can disqualify one from doing a very important job.
Among the many ideological differences between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are competing views of what's acceptable, what's not (but forgivable), and what's so far out of bounds that the parties involved have no business anywhere near the White House.
To really sort this one out you have to consider all sorts of questions. Here is a short list: The innards of the Clinton marriage as well as two previous Trump ones, whether a decision not to divorce is an endorsement of all of one's spouse's actions, at what point any of this should be a matter of public inquiry and whether or for how long what one did in the past should shape the future.
What's made this all so uncomfortable to watch — and quite frankly, to write about — is that one candidate who says a lot about everyone and has his own complicated marital history is now calling the other candidate's husband sexist because of L'Affaire de Lewinsky during the Clinton years in the White House. And, of course, there are the many other questions, allegations and lawsuits stemming from Bill Clinton's alleged approach to marriage. GOP front-runner Trump has all but said that leading Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton's own credibility on the I-call-sexism front is severely compromised. According to Trump, Hillary Clinton's ongoing marriage to Bill Clinton is the embodiment of a sexist problem.
On the other side, Hillary Clinton has had some things to say about some of Donald Trump's comments to and about women in his many years in public life, last month, and over the last week. Trump's particular way of dealing with women, whether he admits it or not, is a phenomenon nearly as well-documented as Bill Clinton's, since Trump opted to do and say a lot of these things on tape or to the press. And, now that Trump raised the details of the Clinton marriage circa late 1998 — which The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus called "fair game" — that would seem to open the door to discussion of the contents of all those stories written about the sordid details of the first Trump divorce circa 1990, his remarriage circa 1993 and second split circa 1997.
Now, some might say that there are all sorts of private, complicated things between couples that lead some to divorce and some to remain married. And they might be right. Some would also say that even the private behavior of a president, can compromise focus and attention needed to manage critical domestic and international responsibilities. And when a president then lies under oath about those activities, this becomes a clear matter of public concern. These people might also be right.
But do you see the problem here? By either measure both the Clintons' marriage and Trump's marriages are either not suitable for public exploration or totally are. And that still does not resolve the question of to what degree Hillary Clinton's political future should really be dictated by the actions of a man to whom she has decided to remain married.
All of this should, on a logical plane where egos, ambition and the desire for elected office do not reign, be enough to keep both sides relatively quiet. Historically, philandering and marital arrangements of all kinds have not disqualified men from leading. "Official mistress of the king" or some man of note was an actual title or accepted role that once existed in many a kingdom and marriage.
And if we are all the way real, Bill Clinton is far from the only married president or national political figure believed by his biographers to have had some sort of sexual relations with someone not their spouse.
This is a pattern that cuts across parties and decades. It includes many of the men who drafted and signed the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and saw the country through world wars and the Great Depression.
The list of men who could be included here is, indeed, very, very long. If that, to you sounds like a dismissive rationalization, you again, might be right. But the fact is, fidelity -- particularly male fidelity -- has never been regarded as an essential practice or quality to govern. Not here, in the United States. Not anywhere that we know of at all.
Similarly, in the past, and probably some private, off-mic, off-Twitter all-male spaces in the present, some of Trump's known commentary on women has also been acceptable.
It's debatable whether Trump's relatively recent verbal repertoire — he's called women he does not like "fat pigs," sent a columnist a note describing the female column writer as a person with "the face of a dog," described his own daughter in public as someone he would consider in other ways if she weren't his daughter, told a contestant on his business-themed reality TV show the seeing her, "on her knees," must be enjoyable, offered his thoughts on Carly Fiorina's face, described Hillary Clinton's need to use the ladies room during a debate commercial break as "disgusting," and said that a reporter's questions and demeanor were driven by her menstrual cycle — would ever have been regarded as reasonable in mixed company.
But disrespectful behavior, particularly anything that might be offensive to entire groups, has also, thus far, helped keep Trump on top of the polls. So, Hillary Clinton and others may consider his behavior unreasonably boorish or indicative of character traits and views that make him unsuitable for the Oval Office. But it's quite clear that lots of other people do not agree.
And then there's the political issue without much in the way of public precedent. Hillary Clinton is not the one who narrowly avoided impeachment for lying under oath about an affair. Her husband is. Still, she was the First Lady, wife and a political advisor to Bill Clinton during the time when the Clinton White House and its surrogates sought to portray Lewinsky as a flirtatious, unstable woman. That is a litany that has some long historical roots in efforts to publicly discredit women.
So what now? Who can really arbitrate who is the bigger sexist or which bits of whose marriages matter? The answer is likely no one. All this will do is harden Clinton's diehard supporters, and Trump's too. It will remind those who remember the nauseating quality of the news during the Lewinsky scandal of that time. This is part of Bill Clinton's legacy. Reminders will leave those unsure about either Clinton and those who despise them less apt to want to see them return to the White House. The same is also true of any kind of just-the-facts list of public comments made by Trump about women, and what's been reported about his private life. And so it seems that what sexism is and who it disqualifies is, apparently, one issue around which Americans will probably grow more polarized in 2016.
There is also this:
While we've spent most of this week listening to Clinton vs. Trump war over sexism, the gender wage gap remains. The, the volume of pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment complaints filed by workers with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can not be described as small. Most moms and dads still aren't equally dividing household and family responsibilities. In fact, they don't even agree about how much each of them really do. And, of course, the United States remains the only advanced economy in the world where parental leave is not guaranteed.
Defining sexism and exploring other people's marriages won't address any of that.