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Women Who Are in Trouble—and We Don’t Care!

January 11, 2007

There is still a false idea out there that feminists back every woman, regardless of how she behaves. Let's leave that behind right along with 2006. In fact, feminism is just the belief that all people have the full circle of human qualities combined in a unique way in each of us. The simplistic labels of “feminine” and “masculine” are mostly about what society wants us to do: submerge our unique humanity in care giving and reproducing if we're women, and trade our unique humanity for power if we're men. So yes, I believe that women have the right to be wrong, with no double standard of criticism. But when we have the power to make a choice, we also have responsibility. Biology isn't destiny, and it isn't a free pass either. Take the example of Condoleezza Rice. As George W. Bush's hired gun for foreign policy, she's been working for a guy who is opposed overwhelmingly by African American women and men voters, and by a majority of all women voters, too. Many white men are giving up on him too. Still, Rice could be given credit for sincerity in believing that Bush knows better what is good for the country than most people in it—if she weren't so hypocritical. When Rice was made provost of Stanford University, for example, she was the product of affirmative action. (I'm not saying she isn't smart; on the contrary, affirmative action often raises standards by enlarging the pool of talent.) The problem was that she pulled up the ladder behind her by opposing affirmative action for everybody else. When she benefited from Bush's support as well as his effort to attract some black voters by appointing a second African American secretary of state, she quickly became Bush's justifier and marketer instead of his advisor. Unlike her predecessor Colin Powell, she doesn't seem to have tried to mitigate disaster or given unwelcome advice about the consequences of failure in Iraq. Instead, she sugarcoated this illegal invasion in pretty public phrases about democracy, and became Bush's “yes” woman in inner circles, too. So I don't care that she's going down with a sinking ship. She helped to take the United States to a new low in world respect, a new high in world hatred, and a new danger from increased terrorism. I don't care that she got in big trouble on every front, from shopping for designer shoes on Madison Avenue while the poor of New Orleans were drowning to renewing the painful old image of the smart black retainer working for the not-so-smart Southern family. She has gone from a Presidential “mention” to an unmentionable on the coattails of the boss she chose. Then there is the pop cultural saga of Judith Regan. As an entrepreneurial editor, she turned Howard Stern's juvenile monologues into a book from her basement, then continued publishing him as he created such trademarks as persuading women (but not men) to strip and subject themselves to ridicule on his television show. Her publishing empire kept going up in profits and down in taste until she finally reached the bottom: O. J. Simpson. By profiteering on a book and TV interview in which Simpson told his story “as if” he had murdered his estranged wife and her friend—something millions of Americans and at least one jury believe he did—she finally reached a point that could no longer be deodorized by money. Though she tried to save her ass by insisting she had got Simpson to confess—something Simpson promptly denied—there was a rebellion from bookstores to TV stations, from the families of the murdered to talk show hosts. She was fired as an embarrassment. Instead of taking responsibility for her own judgment, however, she launched a lawsuit against Rupert Murdoch on the grounds that her only real career problem was that he accused her of anti-Semitism. While it's hard not to support anyone who sues Murdoch, she who lives by bad taste dies by bad taste. I also don't care that Ann Coulter, the right-wing blond extremist, has become the woman people love to hate on television. Indeed, she may be so self-destructive that she doesn't need to be on this list; consider her equating a liberal with a traitor, or her charge that 9/11 widows were reveling in their husbands' deaths. Reporters are only partly joking when they ask me if I've hired her to represent anti-feminism. Nonetheless, TV bookers still put her on to give viewers the guilty pleasure of watching a train wreck, and her books are still causing the death of trees.  Therefore, it's worth pointing out that she is a rare woman who actually is her own worst enemy. I also call your attention to Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state who altered the course of history by giving its electoral votes—and the White House—to George W. Bush. In hair and make-up otherwise reserved for female impersonators, Harris went on television to throw the election to the candidate she had been supporting. Though she was rewarded by her election to Congress, multiple investigations and documentaries have since revealed a degree of selective voter suppression that deserved a re-vote, not just a re-count. Now that even her Florida district has rejected her, Harris seems likely to enter history as proof that one unprincipled act can have worldwide impact. Finally, there is the mother of them all, Barbara Bush. She gave up finishing college to marry the first President Bush, and her commitment to reproductive freedom and Planned Parenthood for her son's ascension to the White House as the candidate of the religious right. That could be a cause for sympathy if she had chosen the honesty of a Betty Ford, or the independence of a Lillian Carter, two women who share her experience as a Presidential wife and mother. Instead, she seems to bury her independence in a bitterness and vitriol that belies her sweet motherly look, to call women opposed to family politics names that, as she said, “rhymes with rich,” and to herd the other Bush wives into enforced conformity or silence. Her insensitivity to those outside her closed circle is legendary, as when, on TV after Katrina, she spoke of refugees in Houston as if they were somehow better off than in their poor New Orleans homes. In short, she seems bitter with all the accumulated bile of living a derived life. History will recognize that others in the same position hung on to their humanity. Of course, it's tempting to figure out the cause of women or men getting into trouble; not as an excuse but as a reason. Perhaps Condoleezza Rice was so traumatized by the murder of little girls her own age in the Birmingham church bombing that she determined to stick so close to the enemy that he couldn't hurt her without also hurting himself. The problem is that he has blown up his legacy—and hers and this country’s, too. Gloria Steinem is board member of the Women’s Media Center.

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