'Cookies' vs. career Remark stings in real world of conflicting roles

March 23, 1992|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff writer

Most recently, it was Hillary Clinton defending her high-powered legal career: "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas."

Several days earlier, it was a critic in The New Republic declaring, "Women should feel . . . free to have five children and bake cookies all day . . ."

So we ask: What's with the cookies, anyway?

"It's a metaphor," said Heidi Brennan, co-director of Mothers at Home, a Vienna, Va.-based network of some 14,000 women. "It's saying mothering is a frivolous activity."

It's saying, "This is a new kind of wife," said Lynn Povich, editor of Working Woman magazine. "She has a genuine career."

Obviously, cookies are shorthand for larger complexities. Such as the enduring myth that one set of women stays

home and bakes cookies in Mommyworld while another set charges off briefcase in hand to Careerworld. Such as the current thorn in the side of feminism: criticism that the women's movement is out of touch with the real lives of women and their real, conflicting roles at home, in the office and within their own selves.

While none of this is new to many women, this is the first time the issue has landed smack in the middle of a presidential campaign. Despite what has been going on in the rest of America, the White House seemed one of the last remaining places where you could count on the woman not working -- or at least not working for pay -- outside the home.

"Barbara Bush is probably, if not the last, very close to the last, of the very traditional first ladies," said Patricia O'Brien, a Washington writer whose experience as a reporter on the campaign trail and later as Michael Dukakis' press secretary contributed to her just-published novel, "The Candidate's Wife." "It's a different generation of candidates now; it's a different generation of candidates' wives."

This generational shift seemed to happen overnight. Just two years ago, Mrs. Bush was catching flak from Wellesley College students who considered her an inappropriate commencement speaker because she wasn't a career woman; now, Hillary Clinton is catching it for seeming too much a career woman.

"A candidate's wife is damned if she does, damned if she doesn't," Ms. O'Brien said. "I think we sort of want everything. We don't want someone who threatens us. . . . But when you elect a president and his wife, you want, in a sense, a coronation. You want someone larger and wiser and better than you -- someone who can wear the crowns on their heads."

And despite the fact that she isn't really elected and doesn't get paid, what the first lady does and how she acts is significant, Ms. O'Brien said.

"The first lady sets a tone for the country," she said.

The cookies-and-tea remark landed on a country that has yet to come to terms with the "proper" role of women, several observers said. And so the sound bite -- which many feel was blurted out under duress when Ms. Clinton was accused of profiting from business her law firm received because her husband was governor -- either stung or was brushed off depending on individual experience.

"I think she has to be careful about what she says . . . but there are a lot of people who think the best reason to vote for Bill Clinton is Hillary Clinton," Working Woman's Ms. Povich said. "How can you not admire a woman like that? Maybe that's because I live in a world where most women do work."

"A woman said to me yesterday, I had thought things had changed a little bit, then this comment came down," Ms. Brennan of the mothers' group said. "Most Americans do believe things have changed, but in the intellectually elite centers, like the political culture of Washington, D.C., they don't understand this. A comment like this is out of touch. Our lives are more complex."

The feminist movement similarly has been hit with the out-of-touch charge when it comes to home-and-work issues.

"The reason this is problematic is that in the feminist discourse popular for the last 15 years -- and I am a feminist -- we somehow bought the idea that home and cookies, that women's work in the home, is an inferior labor," said Patricia Fernandez Kelly, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University. "That's what we'd been told for years. This is what trapped Hillary Clinton. It has been so much a part of our outlook, we don't realize this is offensive to women.

"The point is, in the early stages of the new wave of feminism in the 1970s, people emphasized the equality of women in the workplace," Ms. Kelly said. "But it's the '90s now. We need to realize we don't do women or men any service by assuming women's work in the home is an inferior form of labor."

What's ironic about the work vs. home dichotomy is that women increasingly are not doing one or the other -- but both. Census figures from 1990 show that 53 percent of women with newborn children were working women, compared with 38 percent in 1980. And many women have arranged for flextime, part-time or work-at-home jobs that put them in both worlds simultaneously.

"A lot of the women who are currently at home are just passing through," Ms. Povich said. "They have plans to stay home for a while, then go back to work. They think of themselves as career women. And the women who have chosen to stay home full time for the long term . . . it depends on where they've been or what they're plans for the future are, but I don't see that there's a real war going on between the two groups.

Ms. Brennan, of the Mothers at Home group, agrees that there is an ebb and flow between the at-home and the work-outside worlds. The women at home today are not retrograde June Cleavers, she said.

"We're home-centered, but we bring to bear the experiences of our jobs, our education," said Ms. Brennan, a former management consultant who has four children aged 10 months to 8 years. "And you know what we hear around here is women saying: 'I baked more cookies before I had children -- I had more time then.' "

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