The four wives likely are more alike than we would admit

ALICE STEINBACH

July 16, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

When it comes to presidential politics I admit to being confused. Budgets, deficits, health care, unemployment, educational reform,environmental concerns, poverty, racial division: so many issues to consider and so little time in which to do it.

No wonder that even the likes of Albert Einstein complained, saying: "Politics is far more complicated than physics."

So, bolstered by the knowledge that Einstein and I share this intellectual deficit -- although Al knows physics and I don't -- here are some thoughts on an important consideration in the 1992 presidential race: The Hillary-Tipper-Barbara-Marilyn Factor.

So much depends on stereotyping these women correctly that, before going on, it's crucial to review briefly the labels they've been given. I think I've got this straight:

Hillary Clinton is a pushy feminist careerist who is contemptuous of ordinary housewives and plans to serve as co-president if her husband is elected.

Tipper Gore is a homemaker who stands by her man, stays home with the kids and works to censure sexually explicit music.

Barbara Bush is a kindly grandmother who enjoys playing with her grandchildren, doing good works and, unlike Nancy Reagan, would never politically advise her husband.

Marilyn Quayle is a religious fundamentalist who has devoted most of the 17 years since receiving her law degree to taking care of her children and defending her husband from ridicule.

Now I want you to take a short quiz. Please identify which of the four wives is being described in each of the following vignettes.

Wife No. 1: "I'm not just a little housewife that's been sitting at home . . ." said this woman, who was also described by a Washington reporter as "smart and ambitious." She is a lawyer who had an induced labor because the due date, two weeks later, conflicted with her bar exam.

The correct answer is: Marilyn Quayle.

Wife No. 2: This woman was recently described by the New Republic as someone who "pounds the hustings, stomping for her husband . . . She helps raise money for him and provides a critical layer of good p.r. . . . that helps insulate him from the political criticism [he] deserves . . . A stealth-Nancy in Keds."

The correct answer is: Barbara Bush.

Wife No. 3: She could have been a brilliant contender in the highest ranks of her profession in New York or Washington, but this woman gave up the promise of a high-profile career in exciting surroundings to follow her man back to a small Southern city.

The correct answer is: Hillary Clinton.

Wife No. 4: This woman played the drums in high school and loves rock-and-roll. Her music collection includes a vintage copy of "Cheap Thrills," the 24-year-old "Beatles for Sale" album and a lot of Springsteen.

The correct answer is: Tipper Gore.

It has been said that one of life's unpardonable sins is to allow a person to go unlabeled. That the world regards such a person as the police do an unleashed dog.

In the case of the Hillary-Tipper-Barbara-Marilyn Factor, the labels we need to create are those that divide the four women; that pit them against one another. And the sharpest division in our stereotyping seems to be the line drawn between the traditional wives (read: stay-at-home) vs. the modern wives (read: career-minded).

In fact, it is an absurd assumption: the idea that a woman is defined by her choice to be homemaker or career woman. It ignores the infinite number of other common experiences shared by all women. And it prevents a genuine understanding of what being a woman and a wife and a mother is all about.

Indeed, if we could get beyond the stereotyping of Hillary and Tipper and Barbara and Marilyn we might see -- instead of their differences -- their shared experiences.

They all know what it's like to try to shield their children from the harsh glare of publicity and give them as normal a life as possible.

They all know how it feels to be held up to ridicule and made fun of in public. And they all know how to stand by their man when he's the one being ridiculed. And how to prepare their children for such meanness.

They all know what it means to have their lives altered by a husband's career choice -- and to raise a family in which the fathers are often absent.

But above all, Hillary and Tipper and Barbara and Marilyn have this in common: They have all been shaped by the experience of growing up female in a society that sends wildly mixed messages to women.

But I suspect if the four of them were washed up together on a desert island -- far from the political world where stereotypes rule -- they'd eventually emerge as . . . good friends.

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