Feminism and Politics: A Matter of Convenience

While I was too young to understand the women's liberation movement during its heyday (the late 1960s through the 1970s), I do remember the television commercial for Enjoli perfume:

I can bring home the bacon
Fry it up in a pan
And never ever let you forget you're a man
‘Cause I'm a woman (Enjoli)!
The ad portrayed the essentials of the movement: women were on the rise in the workplace while still being able to mesmerize the men in their lives with incredible sex appeal and put a delicious meal on the table. Ah, those were the days! I don't think my mother remembers them in quite that way, however. Working long days as the manager of a doctor's office and then having to come home to cook and clean for three children and a husband made her more likely to collapse into bed than put on the same "come hither" look portrayed by the woman in the Enjoli ad.

Despite their failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, feminists (those who had men and those who didn't) felt that women had finally made it during those heady days of the 1970s and 1980s. Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver were out, Mary Tyler Moore and Elaine Nardo were in. Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed as the first female Supreme Court justice. More women were serving in Congress and in the upper echelons of the corporate world. The comic strip Cathy highlighted the ups and down of the single career woman devoted to shopping and her dog. Virginia Slims, in the days before smoking became passé, seized upon this empowerment with the slogan, "You've come a long way, baby!"

Fast forward to the 21st century. Women are in the most powerful position they've ever been in since the founding of the United States. It's projected that in 2008, women in the workforce will nearly equal men (48 to 52 percent). Movie stars like Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman earn as much, or nearly as much, as their male counterparts. Current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the second woman to occupy one of most powerful positions in the nation. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is the first female Speaker of the House. And (former First Lady) Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has officially announced her intention to run for president in 2008. And supposedly, more and more women are deciding they don't need men.

But a few funny things have happened. Cathy, the forever-single career woman, finally married longtime on-again, off-again boyfriend Irving in 2004. More young women at elite colleges are planning  to stay home with their children. A 2006 poll  showed that a majority of women not only believe that it's difficult to find a balance between work and raising a family, but that women in the workplace is no longer a choice, but a necessity. And in politics, women who have children have become star-bellied Sneetches and those who don't are the Sneetches "with none upon thars."

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is a self-styled champion of women's rights - specifically, abortion rights. One would assume that Boxer admires women who choose to pursue a career path rather than marriage based upon her politics, but she thought nothing of using Condoleezza Rice's single and childless state to imply why Rice should not have a voice in wartime policy.

"You're not going to pay a particular price, as I understand it, within immediate family,"
she said in a much-publicized exchange during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Iraq earlier this month. (Boxer did include that neither her children nor her grandchild would be affected by the war, but neither situation had a place in the debate.) Rice was quoted in an interview the day after as saying,
"I thought it was okay to not have children and I thought you could still make the decisions on behalf of the country even if you were single and didn't have children."
In theory, Rice is correct. But when partisan politics are at stake, sisterhood goes right out the window.

Nancy Pelosi has also used her role as mother and grandmother as a public relations prop in her ascent to being the first woman Speaker of the House. (I wrote about it at length for AT here.) Pelosi is a strange combination of sweet and tough: she has been quoted as saying,
"If people are ripping your face off you have to rip their face off,"
"Anybody who's ever dealt with me knows not to mess with me."
Is that her "mother-of-five" voice or the voice she reserves for her grandchildren?

And while she is not generally known for her maternal side, Hillary Clinton is not above using children and the family for furthering her political ambitions - she appears surrounded by smiling children on the cover of her recently republished  book It Takes a Village, although she did not appear at all on the original cover. A savvy politician, Hillary has obviously picked up on the importance of family in today's political arena, even though she herself said that pursuing her career was more important than "baking cookies and having teas."

As many American women are making an effort to reconcile their traditional roles with the roles they've adopted over the last thirty years, women in politics are having to do the same. The results aren't pretty. Writing for The Post Chronicle, L.A. Morris notes the increased shrill factor, most notably in the Democratic party:
If there were ever a chance for women to be recognized as something other than female, these three self-declared feminists [Clinton, Pelosi and Boxer] have managed to do everything in their power to set the women's movement back to the caveman era. [...]

How can we hope to be treated as equals if we ourselves cannot control our catty instinct to shred our female competitors and counterparts?  These icy babes are snowblind to the chilling effect they are having on women everywhere, and will never acknowledge they and their fellow party members are to blame.  They are clueless, and frankly, too ambitious for their own (or anyone else's) good.
It's a precarious position, to be sure: representing feminism's old guard while trying to appeal to today's women, who are slowly beginning to realize that having it all isn't quite as easy as depicted in that old perfume commercial. And so it seems that some of the country's most prominent female politicians must decide when and where to apply feminist principles as they navigate the hazardous waters of twenty-first century life.