Ellen Goodman's liberal values on the line Columnist thinks many are seeking less rigid rules

October 28, 1993|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — At the women's club -- one of those refuges of tasteful furniture and pre-blow-dryer hairdos -- one member asks Ellen Goodman about the semantics of rape vs. date rape, and, minutes later, another reminds her to say hello to her son-in-law, who also writes columns for the Boston Globe.

The personal and the political. Of course. That's been Ellen Goodman's beat since she began writing a newspaper column in 1976. Some of her most recent takes on issues ranging from the familial to the global have just been published in a collection titled, "Value Judgments" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22).

When selecting about 130 of her columns from the past several years for this collection, Ms. Goodman found a unifying theme.

"If I had to put one word on what I'd written about, that was it -- values," Ms. Goodman says after a recent talk and book signing at the Women's National Democratic Club. "And this was a good time to put out a book about values. It's what people are wrestling with today, whether it's the family, relationships, ethics, health care, politics, character issues."

And it was time, the liberal Ms. Goodman adds, to address values from something other than a conservative perspective.

"It seemed to me that for a long time the far right had taken over the word 'values,' like the way they took over the word 'family,' " she says. "For those of us who have been questioning a rather rigid set of traditional values, we knew what we weren't comfortable with."

More difficult, though, was coming up with a new set of values to replace the rejected ones, she says.

"Value Judgments," her fifth collection of columns, reads as a TC sort of values-system-in-progress, with Ms. Goodman confronting specific issues of the day and, perhaps, coming up with larger truths in the end. There's little of the social anthropology of the past several years that has escaped her discerning mind: She takes on William Kennedy Smith, gays in the military, Jack Kevorkian, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, Magic Johnson and AIDS, Tailhook, Nannygate, Gregory K (the kid who divorced his parents), Woody Allen (the filmmaker sleeping with his ex-lover's adoptive daughter).

The Clintons provide particularly rich fodder for her, from Chelsea's private schooling to the frank yet less-than-tabloid dissection of Bill and Hillary's marriage on "60 Minutes" in the wake of the Gennifer Flowers scandal. "Together they [Bill and Hillary Clinton] ask a valid question whether the public allows second acts in first marriages," Ms. Goodman wrote in her Jan. 31, 1992, column. "Whether the public should judge what the couple has resolved."

And, in addition to those hot-off-the-presses issues are the more perennial subjects that faithful readers expect -- abortion, feminism, growing tomatoes in Maine.

It's that kind of vast range that has made the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist hard to classify -- although, being one of the few female names on the opinion pages, she's always been '' categorized as a woman columnist. While most of the more than 440 newspapers that carry her column print it on the opinion page now, when she first started, about half ran it in what was then called the women's section.

"Women aren't seen as a whole range of opinions. They're seen as women," she says. Which, she adds, discounts the huge political and stylistic differences in a group that includes Meg Greenfield, Anna Quindlen, Mona Charen and Molly Ivins.

While she doesn't write just about "women's issues," neither does she dismiss their importance.

"The women's movement is a major part of my life," Ms. Goodman, 52,says. "I find it fascinating to write about this long, slow social change."

While others have written the obituary of feminism, Ms. Goodman sees its twists and turns as a natural process.

"We moved from a double standard for men and women to a

single standard, which looked a lot like the old male standard. We were liberated to act like men," Ms. Goodman says of the have-it-all Superwoman myth of the '70s and '80s. "Then we said, this isn't working for me. So now, where we are at this moment is that we're OK with the fact that we can work and still have families, but no one is helping us. Superwoman is dead, but she's been replaced with Superdrudge."

Ms. Goodman's life parallels many of the issues she writes about: She's been married, divorced and remarried. She's a working mother. Yet, she draws some lines between the personal and the professional.

"I'm not a confessional writer," says Ms. Goodman. "But I think people who read your column should know where you're coming from . . . that you're not a disembodied voice."

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