BOSTON -- And so we find the woman standing at the newsstand. In her right hand there's a copy of Newsweek with a headline: "Martha's Mess." In her left hand, there's a copy of Martha Stewart Living with a labor-intensive red, white and blue berry tart on the cover.
Carefully, the woman tucks them into the collection of stories in her briefcase, each one of which bears a similar headline: "Martha in Hell's Kitchen"; "Come Clean"; "Scandal Leaves Untidy Stain"; "Insider Trading Is Not a Good Thing."
She turns to leave when suddenly, out of nowhere, she finds herself trapped in a battle. One woman with two mindsets.
"Isn't it terrible about Martha Stewart?" says her Ego with a sympathetic frown.
"Just awful," answers her Alter with a thinly repressed smirk.
"I'm thinking of the snide coverage," says Ego sternly, "This is way out of hand. Why didn't they put ImClone CEO Sam Waksal on the cover? Why Martha?"
"I'm thinking about the legal accusations," retorts Alter. "Is it possible that a woman running a $295 million company, a director of the New York Stock Exchange for gawd's sakes, would risk it all to end up saving $43,000 in a stock deal? Are the rich that different from you and me?"
"Wait a minute. We're not talking about the rich. We're talking about the sisterhood," says Ego, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. "You know the drill: the blonder they are, the harder they fall. Someone's always lying in wait for the uppity woman. We have to defend her. She's one of us."
"One of us?" squeaks Alter. "Not unless we too trim our poached eggs with scissors!" Alter flips furiously through the Living magazine. When she gets to the page that holds Martha's calendar, she adds: "She's not one of us unless we're also going to use July 2 to `vacuum grills on all appliances."'
Ego blanches but she's not done yet. "Come on," she says, "Martha is a self-made tycoon from a working-class family. She's a survivor. She's been sneered at, parodied, and kept going. Remember when she told Larry King, `there's still a little bit of inequality at the top.' You aren't going to deny that, are you? You want to know how to spell `glee' at her troubles? S-e-x-i-s-m."
"Ego, you're paranoid. We've had enough stories about female whistle-blowers in the past weeks to make virtue a single-sex business school. Remember Coleen Rowley at the FBI? Remember Sherron Watkins at Enron? This Martha media blitz is nothing but an equal opportunity arrow slung at the greedy class."
"Oh, sure," huffs Ego. "Tell me then, why is it when a woman finally gets inside, she becomes a target for the woman-haters?" "Tell me," snipes Alter, "why is it when a woman finally gets inside she's likely to become one of the boys?"
The combatants glare at each and retreat to the opposite ends inside one woman's mind. Quietly, they peruse the Martha Stewart Web site for tips on saving tomato paste and folding napkins. They list the 1,900 Kmart stores she graces, the 40 books she's written, the cooking show on cable TV. And of course, the entry for July 8, "Harvest peas/ Meet with financial planner."
Calmed by the sight of Martha holding a basket of eggs on the corporate page, they try again.
"See," says Ego, "she made her fortune identifying a niche market for women."
"Yeah," says Alter slyly, "she made her fortune convincing women to spend their nights decorating the inside of the medicine cabinet. She's like the women who get six-figure advances so they can write books telling other women to be full-time mothers."
"Ah, now I get it. Martha doesn't make it into your sisterhood because selling sheets isn't politically correct?"
"She doesn't make it because her whole mystique was phony from the get-go."
"Hey, Alter, have you ever met Ralph Lauren?"
The duo go on, arguing out the great American love/hate relationship with Martha Stewart, deconstructing the national glee and chagrin at her legal woes. They pore over the cartoons of Martha fixing up her jail cell. They share quotes from her defenders who regard the flap as anti-feminist fuel.
"She's innocent until proved guilty. But she's already been condemned," says Ego, disheartened. "If we don't protect her from the media jackals, who will?"
"How come men don't feel that the future of all male CEOs rests on Ken Lay?" pipes up Alter.
Finally, Alter rests her weary finger on Martha's calendar. "Ego, do you know what she has planned for July 25? She's going to power wash mildew from her fences."
"Oh my god," gasps Ego.
In the case of Martha Stewart, sisterhood is ambivalent.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe .com.