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Women on Top
By Jo Page

As a first step toward my goal of watching more television, I caught two TV shows recently.

The first was Cybill Shepherd’s cartoonish incarnation of Martha Stewart in Martha, Inc. The second was the last 10 minutes of Barbara Walters’ interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It’s strange timing, in a way: Martha’s media mayhem coinciding with Hillary’s hefty History.

It’s strange timing but maybe fortuitous, as well. Because it throws into stark relief the sorry truth that no matter what these women do, an ornery public pisses and moans about it.

There are a few voices—but really, just a few—who want to press the case that the pillorying of these two has a lot more to do with a public’s discomfort with powerful women in general than it as to do with Hillary and Martha, in particular.

I’m one of those few voices. And the coincidental timing of their renewed media spotlighting seems only to underscore the fact that in the court of public opinion, these two can’t get anything right.

Only, what’s curious about that is that these are women radically different from one another.

In some ways they each embody an extreme side of the two directions in which many, if not most, contemporary women feel themselves pulled—to career at the expense of home life or to home life itself as the career.

I mean, nobody takes Hillary Clinton’s chocolate-chip-cookie recipe seriously, except as joke fodder. And while Martha may have a trusted word on furnishing a bed chamber, in the Senate chambers her words would mean nothing. One of them is dedicated to bettering the public weal, the other to bettering the private domain.

And for all that, their detractors paint each of them with the same old broad (so to speak) brush, the same tired old cliché that gets slapped so easily on women wielding economic or political power—spheres in which white males still hold by far the greatest sway.

But the tired old cliché, applied equally to Hillary and Martha, goes like this:

That they are each are power hungry, bossy and more ambitious than Lady MacBeth.

That they can’t satisfy their men.

That they lack enough maternal instinct to have more than one kid.

That since they have power, they must lack tenderness.

That they are never satisfied.

That they are greedy.

That they don’t like sex, aren’t sexy or can’t get any.

It’s a pretty damn insulting cliché.

But what’s most baffling about it is how it gets tailor-fitted to each of them.

During the White House years Hillary had been alternately portrayed as a harridan, tossing lamps and calling the shots, or a First Lady faking it badly, standing behind her man, but with itchy feet and a pasted-on smile.

Her low-profile, nose-to-the-grindstone, junior senator image has been no more to public liking either. Her insincerity is assumed—that her earnestness is just a savvy tack designed to court public opinion in order to wield more political power down the road.

Then out comes Living History, and, so far, I’ve heard mutually contradictory theories about why she wrote it (apart from the obvious reason—see tired old cliché above—greediness). It’s either a pre-emptive strategy for a White House run, well-timed to coincide with Bill’s increased public presence, or an it’s-my-turn gesture aimed at uncoupling their public images.

And then look at how the conservative right, normally staunchly in support of marriage, has vilified Hillary for staying with Bill. What kind of self-respecting woman takes her husband’s fidelity lying down—particularly if he didn’t? Her staying with him must indicate a secret insecurity, a latent lesbianism or an avaricious hunger to crawl her way into higher and higher political offices.

So no matter what she does, there’s a problem. Can’t win for losing, as my mother used to say.

Martha fares no better and really no differently.

There is no disputing that she hails from the working class, that the business that would become Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia really did begin as a modest, from-the-home catering business, that she continues to include family members and friends in projects. On one level hers is the ultimate local-boy-makes-good story.

But maybe the problem is that she is a local girl. Her moxie, her ability to transcend social class, her success have always been seen as suspicious—no one could have gotten where she has gotten without being a two-faced social climber, a raging perfectionist, a sexless insomniac more to be parodied than praised.

So her personal troubles evince a kind of public shadenfreude. Somehow it’s assumed that of course Andy would leave Martha. And if it was for one of her staff members, well those are her just desserts for not being a better wife.

Her financial woes are seen as a kind of comeuppance for having made, however briefly, the billionaire club. That’s not what we expect from our home-ec teachers.

And let’s talk about home ec for a minute. What could be less threatening to women—or to straight men, who seem to be her biggest detractors—than a woman who actually re-introduced a sense of dignity into what 20 years of pop-culture feminism so consistently demeaned?

No, Martha Stewart is not about tatting doilies at all. Sure, there are some pretty far-fetched projects and a few over-the-top recipes. But James Beard had some doozies, too.

I suppose it’s kind of corny to be an apologist for Martha and Hillary. And it’s true, I am. But there’s more to their pillorying than meets the eye.

It’s not just about the two of them. In fact, I don’t really think it’s much about them at all.

Because the broad brush that paints a jaundiced portrait of each of them says a lot more about a public view of women in general than it does about those bold enough to step outside the Jell-O mold.

 You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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