Editor’s note: At the beginning of her talk on Wednesday, Oct. 16, Monica Lewinsky declared the entire talk off-the-record for media. This was not previously communicated to the Phi, but the editors chose to honor this by not publishing any of the contents of her speech.
Hundreds of students stood in a line snaking through Commons atrium before 8 a.m. three days in a row last week to claim their spot to see Monica Lewinsky speak.
Lewinsky, the former White House intern with whom former President Bill Clinton had an affair, spoke on survival, resilience, digital reputation and equality, according to the event’s advertisement.
After years of silence, Lewinsky returned to the public as a Vanity Fair columnist and spoke on a TED talk about the price of shame and her anti-cyberbullying activism.
Seven organizations pooled $35,000 to bring the speaker to campus. Contact Committee contributed the most with $15,000 and gave out a total of 514 tickets for the packed event in Evans Hall.
On behalf of the Johnson Program in Leadership and Integrity, Provost Marc Conner said that last year he invited the university’s interdisciplinary programs to invite a major speaker, and the WGSS program suggested Lewinsky.
The Johnson lecture fund contributed $12,500 to the event.
“It was truly a collaborative effort with broad-based campus support,” Conner said in an email. “In the request for Johnson support, it was emphasized that although Lewinsky is most famous for her role in leading to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, in recent years she has written and spoken eloquently about the cost of shame, how cultural narratives shaped perceptions about her, and how she has reevaluated her affair with Clinton inthe wake of the #MeToo movement.”
Professor Toni Locy is co-teaching JOUR 341: Multimedia Storytelling Design with associate librarian Jeff Barry. The class is redesigning portions of the Washington Post’s Clinton-Lewinsky Archive to rebuild a website from scratch.
“I decided to try to bring her to campus because I thought it was important for all of us to hear from a person at the center of a scandal that turned into a public feeding frenzy,” Locy said in an email. “Three powerful forces — politics, media and the legal system — came together to crush her. But she survived, and she’s showing others how to reclaim their narratives in an era of toxic discourse.”
The journalism and philosophy departments both contributed $2,000 to bring Lewinsky to campus. The Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program and Leyburn Library both contributed $1,000. Lastly, the history department contributed $1,500.
Lilly Gillespie, ‘22, a Contact Committee member, said she didn’t know how the campus would react to Lewinsky’s visit.
“I personally have always associated her with her affair, but after meeting her and getting to talk to her my opinion was reversed,” Gillespie said. “She was down to earth, personable, poised, and funny. While I think all the speakers we bring to campus provide valuable insight to students, I hope we are able to bring more speakers in the future with this kind of impact and turnout.”
Here’s what some of the students who attended the event had to say about it.
Andrew Claybrook, ‘22: “I wanted to hear Ms. Lewinsky’s story on what it meant to lose control of one’s reputation and then gain it back, how a digital culture influenced that and will continue to play a factor in other people’s lives, and what we can do to make the world more livable and compassionate.”
Kassi Hall, ‘20: “As a female student of politics, I’ve heard a lot about the scandal, but almost every time the perspective I heard came from men who were describing the effects it had on the Clinton presidency. Women in the era of #MeToo are finally feeling more empowered to take back their own narratives, and Monica Lewinsky has done a great job turning a terrible and unfair situation into something that is impactful and can help younger generations.”
Liza Aldridge, ‘21: “I have been gushing about Monica Lewinsky’s talk to anyone who will listen for the last two days. Her resilience and vulnerability is inspiring. The fact that she is passionate enough about her message to come speak openly to college students is humbling. I’m so glad I stood in line at 7:50 a.m. to get that ticket.”
Kyle Brophy, 20: “Monica Lewinsky represents a path of hope for those who feel as though they have lost their voice. The perseverance required to not only survive her situation but take back the narrative by starting anti-bullying initiatives speaks to her insurmountable strength.”
Frances Conner, ’20: “I wanted to hear Monica speak because I was curious. From my parents and in history classes I’d learned about her story, but I’ve never heard the story from her side. I was blown away with her honesty and vulnerability but slightly afraid for the future of news media. The motivation to make money seems to overpower the motivation to share news that is true and appropriate to share more than ever before.”
Maddie Smith, ’22: “You can feel lonely sometimes and that everyone is against you, but they aren’t. There are so many people in everyone’s lives that care. Online shaming and bullying has become a part of our everyday culture, especially through social media use.”
Kassidy Strosnider, ’20: “The way she wants to attack this shame that is currently being doled out on the internet is done with such a passion it is inspiring. Lives are at risk, and the strength she is bringing to this fight against cyberbullying makes me think she can make a difference in those lives.”
Jack Null, ’22: “I attended the Monica Lewinsky talk because I was curious to hear her message. I thought that it was beneficial to my understanding of the scandal to hear her side of the story and how it affected her life. I cannot fathom the level of public humiliation and shame that she must have felt and continues to feel to this day; I think she is incredibly brave to step out into the public light and use her influence in a positive way. Moreover, I think she serves as an example for why we must be careful with what we put on the Internet and what we say to others. On the Internet, it’s very easy to tear people down and it’s much harder to build people up, but true winners always strive to bring out the best in others and themselves.”
Mary Alice Russell, ’22: “I decided to go see Monica Lewinsky because she is an icon that most of our generation can relate to and yet at the same time, not truly understand. I grew up hearing people say things about Monica Lewinsky, but I didn’t really have a face to go with the name or really comprehend all of the details. When Professor Locy told our class that Monica Lewinsky was coming to campus, I just knew that I had to go and learn more about her story. I found her to be totally impressive, since she was a woman that had to rediscover herself. I feel that our community was lucky to hear her speak since she is basically a survivor of the digital revolution.”
Whitley Drinkard, ’20: “As I was too young when the scandal broke to understand its implications or be affected by it, my only knowledge of Monica Lewinsky was of her as a political pop icon, and I chose to attend the talk simply because I was curious as to what she would have to say. I thoroughly enjoyed the talk, and was moved by how her humanity bolstered her cause. We are too disconnected from people when we communicate with/about them on the Internet. Ms. Lewisnsky showed through the talk that she is no robot, nor a person without the ability to make mistakes or have feelings and so are all of the people on the internet that we pry into on a daily basis.”
Jackson Sharman, ’22: “I attended because I wanted to hear Ms. Lewinsky’s message and because I probably wouldn’t be able to hear her speak for free in the future. She was funnier in person than I expected, and I did enjoy it more than I thought it would, even though some of the bits sounded rehearsed.”
Katherine Ingram, ’20: “I attended Monica Lewinsky’s talk because I have been fascinated by how changes in cultural attitudes towards matters like sexual harassment and feminism have forced us to rethink and rewrite the discourse on past controversies (Anita Hill’s Congressional hearing also comes to mind). In Monica Lewinsky’s presentation, I was struck most by her tremendous openness and quiet strength. The path to overcoming past trials has clearly made her not only incredibly resilient, but pretty fearless and gutsy. I had tremendous respect for the humor and compassion she inflected in describing her own story and engaging with W&L students.”
Danika Brockman, ’21: “Ms. Lewinsky’s talk was a really thought provoking and wonderful experience. Her story fit so unexpectedly well with the climate of cyberbullying and internet shaming of today… Her experience of the world’s eyes turning on her was one of the first times the internet was used to spread a hateful view of someone, and her talk was excellent at reminding us that she is not just a pop culture reference but a person, too. It was a great night and I really value it.”
Jack Fencl, ’22: “I was excited when I heard that Monica Lewinsky was coming to W&L because I am in Professor Strong’s class about presidential impeachment, so what she has to say is relevant to what we are talking about. … Overall, I found Ms. Lewinsky’s perspective really interesting. It’s hard to imagine just how difficult the whole process was for her, so I’m glad she had an opportunity to tell the W&L community about her experience. At times she seemed flustered, but we all get flustered. It just goes to show that she is a normal person whose life got swept up by our partisan political world. I really appreciate that W&L makes an effort to bring in such diverse and interesting speakers, and I think they hit a home run with this one.”
Sarah Barry, ’22: “I think her strength in coming back into the public eye saysa lot about getting over something embarrassing or something traumatizing. It’s still painful, yet you evolve past it. … It really humanized the situation, about what we learned from textbooks and classes.”
Lizzie Figueiras, ’21: “I attended Monica Lewinsky’s discussion because I was interested to hear her thoughts since she did not have much of a voice in the conversation of what happened until recently. … We too play a role in making our tech communities, no matter the size, more compassionate. ”
Kaitlyn Brock, ’20: “I attended Monica Lewinsky’s talk to learn more about her experience throughout the media attack into her personal life. I’ve always believed the best way to learn is to listen to other people’s different experiences. She has been villainized, used in 125 rap songs, and had innumerable jokes at her expense. For her to take all of that and still be willing to stand up and speak is inspiring.”
Emma Thai, ’22: “I was not alive when the scandal happened, so I never understood how big of a deal it was to both the country as a whole and Monica’s life. Her talk opened my eyes to the effects that bullying can have on people and how empathy can help to counteract that.”
Harper Darden, ’23: “Going into ‘An Evening with Monica Lewinsky,’ I was definitely attending for surface level reasons. I mean, she was Monica Lewinsky. … Learning about her as a fellow human being helps us to empathize with other people in the public eye and see them for more than just a tabloid story. … I respect her for coming out of her situation with the goal of helping others instead of self-victimization, and I appreciate her as both a warning for our future choices and lesson in empathy.”
Caroline Rivers, ’20: “I attended because I knew her name, but next to nothing about her story. She exemplifies turning an unimaginably difficult experience into strength and a newfound perspective on what it means to be human in a day and age where technology can tempt us to be quick to judge and dehumanize. Just as Monica Lewinsky took back the right to her own narrative, we as people can foster a culture of kindness through living with compassion for one another and reading, writing, interpreting, or what have you, with open minds and open hearts, rather than being ready to throw stones.”
Jowita Chotkiewicz, ’23: “I attended the talk by Monica Lewinsky because I was curious. I was curious to see the woman everybody knows. However, I didn’t know much about the whole scandal because I’m from Germany and it was a bigger deal here than in Europe plus I was very young when it happened. I was so positively surprised by her talk – I thought it was incredibly powerful. I enjoyed it a lot and some parts of her talk brought tears to my eyes. It made me think and rethink certain experiences in life and how I could have handled them differently. I see her in a complete different light now, and I believe many people should have her as a role model or at least try and implement the things she is advocating for. Some examples she gave made me realize that I am just as bad as everybody else when it comes to cyber-bullying because we are not doing anything about it. I am really glad I attended her talk because now I can try and change my online behavior for the better. In my eyes she is a big inspiration and we need more women like her.”
Chloe Parsons, ’22: “I went into the talk expecting a very different woman than what we got. Part of this is due to the version of Monica Lewinsky that’s portrayed in the media and popular culture. At the talk I realized how much of that persona has been exaggerated and made up – she’s just a normal, well-intentioned person. She was very vivacious and kind, and it seems like she has a good heart and has been successful in rising above the challenges she faced.”
Juliana Kerper, ’20: “I attended the event because I thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear Monica Lewinsky talk in such an intimate setting. … I left the event impressed by the social activism she is currently engaged in, but also touched by her story of overcoming the events that catapulted her into the public eye so many years ago.”
Grace Mamon, Laura Calhoun, Emma Derr, Shefali Konda, Maya Lora and Coleman Martinson contributed to this report.