Lovely Ladies

September 28, 1990|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON — NOT LONG AGO, Woody Allen was asked if his social life had changed since he'd become a star. Without skipping a beat, the comedian answered yes: ''I strike out with a much better class of women.''

This is also what it's like being a successful woman in America. You get to be treated as the second sex by an ever-more-elite class of men.

A generation of women has broken through several concentric circles approaching the center of power. Whenever one achieves a new status as first woman or only woman, other of us are convinced that at last and at least she is now immune from second-sexism. Then it turns out that she is just an outsider in an ever-more-inner circle and a newcomer in an ever-more-inner sanctum. The treatment may be more subtle, more difficult to assess or to admit, but it is there.

This pattern may be easiest to see -- or easiest to hear -- in the way men and women interact, the way we talk and listen to each other. What is said, what is heard.

In my own profession for example, when Bigfoot journalists gather for talk shows these days there is usually one pair of high heels. But it's the rare woman in that setting who hasn't been talked over, around or through by her male counterparts.

So it is in politics, where status and titles abound. During the Massachusetts primary, I watched former Attorney General Frank Bellotti interrupt the current lieutenant governor, Evelyn Murphy, repeatedly and with impunity. That they both lost to a more pugnacious candidate, John Silber, didn't change my impression. How ''naturally'' this man worked to dominate the air around this powerful woman.

There was another variation on this theme in the Souter hearings in the Senate. One afternoon, leaders of women's-rights organizations testified. Near the end, waiving his chance to question them, Sen. Strom Thurmond said, ''Mr. Chairman, we have a group of lovely ladies here. We thank you for your presence. . . . No questions.''

One man's chivalry is another woman's chauvinism. One generation's courtesy is another generation's insult. There was something both dissonant and familiar in watching these leaders dismissed as charming. Some of the ''lovely ladies'' rolled their eyes.

Even if, at 87, Senator Thurmond could be ''grandfathered'' permission to use such phrases, what of Sen. Alan Simpson? The usually witty Wyoming man positively lost it -- his humor, his cool. He lectured this Who's Who cast of advocates on the evils of eye-rolling and shoulder-shrugging.

Molly Yard of NOW took another linguistic tack: ''You don't say to the men, 'Gentlemen, you all look lovely.''' But Alan Simpson accused the women of ''a tiresome arrogance'' and went on to call them, deliberately, ''ladies . . . ladies.''

With liquid civility, Mr. Thurmond had stripped these women of any authority except their loveliness. With patronizing acidity, Mr. Simpson had put them down for being uppity. There are far worse scenes of sexism in the inner sanctums. But perhaps none happens with such frequency and subtlety as this sort of verbal cultural clash.

Deborah Tannen, a linguistics scholar who has written about the way men and women talk in ''You Just Don't Understand,'' says that ''the ways our culture talks to women, and to people of high status are at odds. The higher a woman gets, the more inappropriate these words (honey, sweetie, lovely ladies) are.''

The culture of chivalry talks to women as children and calls it polite. The culture of equality is demeaned and insulted. Strom Thurmond meets Molly Yard.

For the most part, women still are in a double verbal bind. As Ms. Tannen says, ''If we talk in ways that get us the floor, we will be seen as bitches.'' If we don't, we will, like children, be seen and not heard.

It's not easy to negotiate, especially as first women, as only women, or as female supplicants before an all-male Senate committee. It's hard to change the culture as outsiders and newcomers to the inner sanctums -- whether Senate Chamber or Big Foot Circle, corporate boardroom or White House.

We can see the top. Some can almost touch it. But even the most powerful female voices are still bouncing off the glass ceiling.

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