Before we venture too far into this column, it seems appropriate to say a few words about Hillary Clinton and the fallout from her recent "I could have stayed home and baked cookies" remark.
So, here are a few words. I didn't say them, but they express my sentiments exactly:
"I think it proves that even smart people can say dumb things," is the way political consultant Ann Lewis, in a recent television appearance, summed up the much overblown cookie flap.
Of course, Hillary Clinton needs no one to defend her when it comes to supporting the causes of women and children. No one has worked harder than she has on these issues. True, her remark does suggest the need for some remedial consciousness-raising about women who choose not to work outside the home, but it was, basically, a careless comment made in a defensive moment.
But what Hillary Clinton did or did not mean in that specific incident is not really the issue. What is at issue is not so much the perception of the feminist topography as one which divides women into two categories -- ambitious, professional women (read: feminists) or traditional, stay-at-home women (read: non-feminists) -- but the fundamental question of what it is that defines a feminist.
In that light, one could make a case that the more subtle question raised by Hillary Clinton's comment is: Can a woman who stays home and bakes cookies be a feminist?
It is the subtext -- this false division of women by their lifestyle choices -- that lies beneath the resistance of many young women, including those who support feminism's goals and reap its benefits, to identify themselves as feminists.
Of course, newly acquired equality always brings with it a new set of problems.
Still, there is irony in the fact that many of the conflicts facing women today -- how to balance family and career advancement and one's own needs against the needs of others, for instance -- can be traced back to the now taken-for-granted accomplishments of the women's movement.
But choice -- and the conflict that comes with it -- is what the women's movement is all about. Along with equal rights, choice was what defined feminism. I learned that back in 1971 when I bought a book full of new and exciting ideas. "Woman in Sexist Society," it was called, and it introduced me to the ideas of such women as Vivian Gornick, Cynthia Ozick, Alix Shulman and Kate Millett.
And while I didn't agree with some of their specific ideas, collectively I knew I was one of them. It clicked into place for me when I read this passage in the book's introduction:
"Women in this country do not want to be free for ruthless competition. They want to be freed from private curatorship of the happiness of individuals -- too often victims themselves -- to joint trusteeship of the common good. They want a place in public life for the values they have been forced to cherish in private for too long."
It seemed to me then, as it does now, that what was being offered to me was the right to shape my life as I saw fit -- and not as the prevailing culture defined me.
Women, this book told me, were free to make choices and, just as important -- perhaps more important -- they would not be punished or demeaned for the choices they made. Which is to say: Career women would not be punished for their ambition; homemakers would not be demeaned for choosing a life devoted to family; assertive women would not be called "bitches"; women who chose to remain single would not be regarded as "old maids."
Indeed, all women would be respected for their choices and, if they did a good job of it, respected for the way they lived out their choices. Just as men are.
Of course, we haven't quite pulled all this off yet. And you don't have to fully buy into the current Backlash Mystique -- which is predicated on a conspiracy theory coupled with a view that holds that the entire life of any woman has been totally shaped by political oppression -- to recognize that women still hold the short straw.
That was made shockingly clear last year when American women watched the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. The infuriating exclusiveness of the all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee -- who just didn't get it -- was like a time bomb that finally exploded in many women's minds.
It was a uniting moment, many say, for women. No false divisions about women who stay at home and women who work. No feminists vs. non-feminists. It was just women who knew unfairness when they saw it responding collectively to a common cause.