WASHINGTON -- Some random thoughts about women and this election campaign:
My first, and somewhat confused, impression is how imprecise the relationship between the two seems. Remember when we were in college in the late '50s and '60s and suddenly became aware of something called "feminism"?
Women were going to be freed, to be totally equal and -- above all, to those of us who felt seriously about equality -- we "new women" were going to inject some traditionally feminine traits into the macho world of competition and conflict. A new world was a-borning.
In fact, much of that ideal has come true, and it sometimes seems so improbable to women of my generation that it leaves me breathless. We have even come to a place where (for better or for worse) what would previously have been on the "women's pages" is now sobersides front-page news: George W. Bush makes marriage a national issue, and it doesn't matter anymore whether the candidates' wives act in a traditional manner.
Elizabeth Edwards, the outspoken wife of hunky Southern senator and trial lawyer John Edwards, for instance, is known to be most candid, whether giving forth on education or on critiques that, to many, she looks older than her boyish-looking husband. "I don't want to walk around and hear people say, 'Oh, look, there's John Edwards with his mother,'" she said recently.
Elizabeth Edwards' forthrightness does fit into the patterns of contemporary feminism. She is there with her man, but she is her own woman with her own ideas, her own jokes and her own digs at her critics.
More unusual is the case of the wife -- the ghost wife? -- of front-running Democrat Howard Dean. Let me say first that there should be no question that Judith Steinberg Dean is a fine woman. She is a dedicated country doctor and, by just about any measure, a good mother and upstanding citizen, creative and productive.
But in the few pictures we have seen of her, she appears to be a child of the '60s. In one rare picture of her last week in The New York Times, she was dressed in old blue jeans and sneakers, apparently convinced that haircuts and makeup are vestiges of the past.
Deeper questions than her casual appearance push their way in here, questions that we have the right to ask. Someone like me surely has nothing against going your own way, and it's magnificent to cure the sick; but her husband is running for the position of leading all of us and of forming, at a pivotal moment in history, our American future.
Isn't it just a little strange that she isn't more curious about this political earthquake her husband has been creating across the country? Wouldn't she want to see it and share in some of it? Wasn't it odd that she did not go with him on his emotional trip to Hawaii recently to receive the remains of his long-dead brother from Laos? What would all of this mean in the White House?
(It is beneath me as an original feminist, I know, but I will ask anyway: What WOULD Judith Steinberg Dean wear to a state dinner at The White House?)
Male politicians are fond of saying that their families are "off-limits," not only to the press but to national inquiry. This President Bush, for instance, got quite sniffy when his daughters were arrested for things like using false identification to get alcohol. (The second time around, however, he wasn't quite so sniffy.)
But in fact, we have a perfect right to know how our first family behaves -- or misbehaves. We have a right not to pry or gossip or even necessarily criticize -- but to know something about who will represent us as a nation in the White House. And that includes the family.
Let's revisit the base philosophy that many of us started out with in feminism. This is the broader picture of injecting traditional feminine traits and qualities into the male-dominated society; this is the replacement of male aggression as the primary historical response to problems with more nuanced, complex, mediative responses. And here, I have a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Over the last 25 years, far from women joining public and professional society and having the cleansing effect on it that we thought inevitable, most women seem to have joined male society -- and in many cases, to have made that male society more aggressive and more pugnacious. Witness the Iraq war.
Women lawyers are proudly tougher than men, and women soldiers fight in Iraq "like men." Meanwhile, the role of cultural conveyor that women played in traditional society is overshadowed. Thus there are far fewer cultural limits of the type women used to impose upon men.
All I'm asking, as I ramble through these political and philosophical thickets, is this: Is this really what it was supposed to be about?
On the other hand, viewed in the revealing prism of this campaign, the "woman's question" doesn't fit into any size, pattern or form anymore. And maybe that was what it was all about, too.
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