Monica Lewinsky, feminist pioneer

A sex-is-power feminist seizes center stage in the POTUS interruptus drama.

Everyone has an opinion about the intelligence or stupidity of the president's alleged dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. But the intelligence or stupidity of Lewinsky's alleged dalliance with him has gone unremarked upon. With one breathtaking exception.

"I have utmost respect for what Lewinsky did," declared Long Island lawyer and self-proclaimed feminist Rosalie Osias from her office last week. "She wanted power, so she aligned herself with the most powerful man in the world." Osias made headlines last month when her foundation donated $10,000 to Lewinsky's legal defense fund. The Osias Foundation, I learned, dedicates itself to the promotion of sexuality in the workplace.

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The sudden emergence of Osias has an only-in-America flavor to it that all but forced me to call her up.

"Lewinsky dressed provocatively and always positioned herself near Clinton," the loquacious Osias observed. "The real world, where the money is made and the deals go down, is run by men. But if you're a sexy woman, you can attract the male hierarchy. You get the male mentor who can take you by the hand, put his arm around you, open your window of opportunity. So you can get to the place the guys will get. I mean, how many 24-year-old women have Vernon Jordan running around getting them jobs?"

Osias knows whereof she speaks. "I've always manipulated men to my benefit," she offered proudly. "Until I dressed in a sexual way [in a law firm], no one cared how much I worked. Once I began dressing differently and got one of the partners to recognize me, I got invited to the luncheons, the strategy sessions, met the major clients." Upon striking out on her own as a mortgage attorney, Osias had a tough time attracting the attention of the banking establishment—until she started advertising. In the ads, which began shocking the readers of Mortgage Press and Mortgage Report in 1995, the good solicitor is all plunging neckline and soaring hemline, whether reclining on a desk ("Does this law firm have a reputation? You bet it does!!!") or pulling a passel of underwear-clad men with a rope ("You can always rely on our strongest 'assets' to close your loans!!")

"I was enticing them, there's no other way to say it," Osias explained. "It wasn't to sleep with them. It was so they would remember my face and my name." Suddenly men she couldn't get an appointment with were running to meet her; her business shot up by 800 percent. Smarts and diligence, she claims, did the rest. "A woman can attract business with her sexuality, but she can only keep it with good work."

The nod to feminist values has hardly mollified the feminist establishment. "That is the stupidest thing I've heard in the last 30 years," marveled Susan L. Webb, president of Seattle's Pacific Resource Development Group, a consulting firm specializing in sexual harassment, and one of the country's leading experts on workplace gender issues. "It puts women back in the original position of our sexuality being the primary identifier and qualification in the workplace." After Osias' ads hit the streets, feminist lawyers waxed particularly disapproving to the press, saying that the ads wouldn't help the public's diminishing confidence in the legal profession, and that looks have no bearing on legal abilities.

Osias has a name for her detractors. "Those women are losers," she said sadly, wondering aloud how many of them run Fortune 500 companies. Her harshest critics, she says, are those who make money from fighting the symptoms, rather than the causes, of female poverty. "We need to educate women in how to make money, which means how to network, how to strategize, who to go after, who to manipulate—the kinds of things men have always done to succeed." New York career coach Karen Salmansohn calls it "Cleavage Power": the sex appeal a woman can wield to wangle more money in a negotiation or to project good old-fashioned self-confidence. "Women come into the workplace and think, 'If I work hard, come in early, look ugly, I'll get promoted,'" Osias said. "It doesn't work that way. For men and women, the real deals are made outside the office."

On the golf links and in the clubrooms of the Old Boys' network, for instance; the age-old male domains of seduction that most of us believe are more professionally appropriate. But are they? Is self-serving flirtation morally purer when it's nonsexual? And if sex appeal is so wrong, shouldn't we be able to distinguish it a little better from its close cousin, charm?

Now hold on, Susan Webb protests: There's a fine line between sucking up and exploiting sexuality. But then she adds that the line is fuzzy rather than fine, and that the fuzziness itself is a further problem for women. In a world whose corner offices are still inhabited disproportionately by men, women are more vulnerable to censure for the kinds of strategic career maneuverings that could be perceived as flirtation. The shortage of women execs also means women have a tougher time finding mentors, Webb adds; research shows that most of us are quickest to mentor our own.

How, then, is a woman supposed to find a mentor? "I have no magic answers," sighs Webb. "But I have no problem at all with aligning yourself with a powerful person in the workplace. This needs to be emphasized more to women. Women don't network through relationships enough. We think that's cheating. We've been categorized for so long as sexual beings, as feelers and nurturers, we tell ourselves, 'I'm going to get ahead on my intellect and abilities alone.'"

Suddenly Webb pauses, frustrated, searching for words. "I can hear what I'm saying, but then again I know what happens when women do it. People accuse us of flirting with the boss to get ahead. We're damned if we do and damned if we don't."

Which brings us back to Rosalie Osias, who may no longer seem quite so far out there. She's taken a cue from the maneuverings of successful men and finds herself laughing all the way to the bank rather than being damned for what she does. What to make of this woman who calls herself a feminist?

It depends on the definition. Traditional feminism sees itself as a crusade to change the world, defeat sexist attitudes, banish demeaning representations of women. Feminists of this stripe, like the ones in the Seattle NOW office who wouldn't return my phone calls or the Midwest expert on gender mentoring who hung up when I mentioned Monica Lewinsky's name, like to criticize all uses of sexuality that they believe reduce women to sexual objects.

But perhaps Osias is part of the emerging feminist contingent that has as its aim something more pragmatic: more women in positions of economic power, period. Seeking to operate within the world that is, rather than an idealized vision of the world that ought to be, this feminism holds that women shouldn't be prohibited from using whatever stealth weapon helps them level the playing field. Call Rosalie Osias the patron saint of this camp, call her a buffoon, call her a whore. Just call her.

"Women have the bomb in their hands!" the attorney thundered through the phone. "Why on earth don't more of them use it?"

Related Links:

You tell us: Should women use sexuality to get ahead in business?

NOW,s statement on Lewinsky

More Lewinsky links than you could ever want

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