An attack on female uppityness

January 17, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Not long ago, Sandra Day O'Connor got a fan letter from a schoolboy. He wrote ''Dear Justice O'Connor. We read a book about you. You're the first woman on the Supreme Court. You learned to ride a horse. You must be the fairest judge in the U.S.A. I hope that someday you can become a president's wife. Love, Chris.''

I don't know what they teach in school these days, but I'm guessing that Chris got this message from the culture. On paper, two Supreme Court justices may be the most powerful women in America. But in the public mind, the highest-ranking woman is still a wife. It's the first lady who stands in the center of the stage or, you might say, the target.

That does not mean that Justice O'Connor is looking for a promotion to the East Wing of the White House. Indeed, after the last weeks, Wendy Gramm and Liddy Dole must break out in a flop-sweat every time they think their husbands might actually win.

In the latest AK-47 attacks, Hillary Rodham Clinton has been accused of being ''a congenital liar,'' a sleazy lawyer and a political liability. An all-around Gal Demon. At the rate things are going, she'll have to make her own videotape in self-defense.

A majority of Americans who don't know what, let alone where, Whitewater is, think she is hiding ''something.'' Just half the public in one poll now approves of the way she is handling the job of first lady. Although I doubt they could define the ''job.''

I suspect this too shall pass. There's barely enough ''there'' there to keep Al D'Amato's famous adrenalin up. Sooner or later, RTC the opposition will fail to meet its allegation-of-the-week quota. Not even Al can believe that she concealed papers so they would pop up -- ta da -- on the eve of her book tour.

But the tone of the attacks on this first lady and the cynicism about her character and motives from every Republican corner and media round table is unprecedented even in the history of Hillary in the Beltway.

I am not just talking about Bill Safire's ''liar'' column which disproved his own maxim about column-writing -- ''Better to be a jerk that knees than a knee that jerks'' -- by proving he could be both. More typical of what's going on was the follow-up column in which he tried to inoculate himself and other character assailants against charges of boorishness.

A blushing demurral

Why, he demurred, he would have been -- blush -- a sexist had he given Mrs. Clinton ''a free pass.'' So, attacking her was really a blow for women's equality. And conversely, anyone who defended this (first) lady must be a chivalrous, chauvinist pig.

Frankly, I have always loved it when men make a feminist argument for woman-bashing. It reminds me of men we have all known and loved whose first liberated act is ''letting'' a date pick up the check or allowing a pregnant woman stand in the bus.

Well, call me Ms. Piggy. For the most part, the pack's pursuit of Hillary is an attempt to discredit the only member of the re-election team President Clinton can't fire. But if you think that the gleeful attacks on Hillary Rodham Clinton are not also attacks on female uppityness, rerun the tapes of the 1992 Republican convention.

For the last three years, the first professional First Wife has tried to figure out -- in public and under the minutest of scrutiny -- a new role that would, literally, work. Has she stumbled? You bet. There's more lawyer than politician in her bones, too much fine print in the health-care proposal, too much caution in her column, and her book is, well, earnest.

As for the ''conflict'' between law briefs and cookie-baking, independent woman and wife, policy wonk and hostess -- sometime we have to stop seeing parts of a whole woman as contradictions.

This is a complex, intense, serious, imperfect woman. She has a righteous side that strikes opponents as self-righteous. She believes in government more than is currently popular. There are people who don't like her husband, her politics or her style.

But in an era when we refuse to give anyone the benefit of any doubt, take a deep breath, pull the teeth out of her ankle and think about her. This is not a person of bad character.

Oh, and about that letter from Chris. Justice O'Connor sent a copy to Hillary Clinton. But the justice reported, ''I don't think she was as amused as I was.'' I wonder why.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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