The Powerful Women Problem

Ah, the dreams of the women's movement. We envisioned a day when there would be women in high places, and here we are, with a female national security adviser, a female Secretary of the Interior, a female Labor Secretary and even our latest female corporate felon.

Now, I've never been a fan of Martha. Her elevation of domestic chores to an obsession, the profusion, in her magazines, of those dictatorial images insisting that your house be a sun-drenched, voile-curtained, neat-as-a-pin showroom, and her smug condescension while trimming the rough edges off poached eggs, all made me long to throw a cream pie at her.

But like many, I see her prosecution and conviction as a cross between showboating by federal prosecutors and good old-fashioned backlash. Did Martha lie? Looks like she did. Is Kenneth Lay still enjoying one of his five homes in Aspen? You bet.

And there's more to it than just her celebrity. Martha's biggest crime, it seems, was to blur and confound the codes of gender in ways that have made a lot of men, and many women, uncomfortable. A woman who is an expert in hand-washing sweaters and folding napkins into the shape of flamingos is supposed to be nurturing, generous, innocent of ambition, focused on family. But Martha, even before the trial, came to be known as a tough, demanding, ruthless businesswoman who didn't suffer fools and wasn't particularly cuddly.

In a society where we police the borders of gender relentlessly, through clothing, gestures, behavior, language and activities, what are we to make of a woman who sells female domestication in a honey-hued voice but behind the cameras acts like what we expect of a tough-as-nails male CEO? Martha was an irresistible target not only because of her fame but because she seemed a housewife with way too much power. Worse, she was a housewife who got paid -- a lot -- for her labors, and a housewife who seemed greedy.

To emphasize that such a gender offender deserves whatever she gets, TV news reporters have slavered over accounts of how Stewart will be subjected to a cavity-search when she goes to prison. Has the viewing public been urged to imagine the same humiliation for Enron's Jeffrey Skilling?

At the same time, ironically, Team Bush has successfully used women, in cabinet positions and elsewhere, to make the administration seem female-friendly and egalitarian. To read more about this, run, do not walk, to the nearest bookstore to get Laura Flanders' terrific new book, Bushwomen.

She begins with Katherine Harris, and other chapters are devoted to Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes, Ann Veneman, Elaine Chao, Christine Todd Whitman and Gale Ann Norton. Of the five female cabinet members she profiles, only one has children. The rest are simply unfamiliar with struggles faced by millions of mothers to juggle the demands of work and family. All have "benefited directly from feminism -- the movement they now cast as women's enemy," writes Flanders, who chides mainstream women's organizations for failing to criticize the policies and actions of powerful women.

Flanders notes how sexist and racist conventions in the news media actually help make these women seem less powerful (and dangerous) than they actually are. For example, all you have to do is say "Katherine Harris" and one immediately pictures garish makeup and shellacked hair. "No one," writes Flanders, "was made more fun of in the media" and "no one did more, more carefully, to use the power of her public office to steal the presidency for her candidate."

Or take the endless pieces that have been written about Condoleezza Rice's childhood in '50s Birmingham, Alabama, and how she rose from there to success. A New York Times piece on Rice, for example, emphasized her hair, dress size and place of birth but "didn't discuss her views on national security until the twenty-seventh paragraph." No Times story so far has dwelt on Vice-President Cheney's youth as a white man in "pre-civil rights Nebraska," notes Flanders, writing that this news frame about Rice both "smacks of racism" and ignores what, exactly, she did after Birmingham.

The Bushwomen, writes Flanders, are "an extremist administration's female front" and if the corporate media took them more seriously "they wouldn't stand a chance." They have been used to mask the ongoing gender gap plaguing the Republican Party. Flanders reminds us that in 2000 Bush had an 11-point margin over Gore with men, but that he lost women by the same amount. Thus it is crucial for women to look beyond the cabinet window dressing and learn what these Bushwomen are really about.

The Martha drama and Team Bush's acute awareness of the gender gap ensure that gender will be front and center, if in often sneaky, subliminal and superficial ways in the coming campaign. Bushwomen and the Stewart conviction remind us how fatuous stereotypes keep us all in line and undermine women and the issues that matter to us most.

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