No good news for women in attacks on Harriet Miers

October 24, 2005|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- Call me a cockeyed pessimist, but I'm having trouble finding any good news in the trashing of Harriet Miers. Somehow Ms. Miers has become proof that we have moved on to a great gender-free utopia, a post-feminist world in which we can now mercilessly tear down a woman without fear of being labeled a sexist piglet.

First we were told that Ms. Miers got the nod as a woman. Now we are told that the full-scale attack proves she is one of the boys. Whoopee.

I'm not a big fan of Ms. Miers, but I do not see her as proof of the arch prediction that equality would be the day mediocre women take their place beside mediocre men. So I can't sign on with those who see the slashing of Ms. Miers by women as a sign of progress for women.

Let's reprise the past few weeks. On the right, the women's auxiliary groups of the conservative movement have been more fragmented than cable networks. The Independent Women's Forum decided to trust President Bush and go with Ms. Miers. The Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute decided not to. Concerned Women for America has not "learned anything more about Miss Miers that justifies endorsement."

Peggy Noonan, erstwhile speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, has called on her fellow Republicans to withdraw as a noble act, committing suttee for her man. And teeth-in-liberal-ankles Ann Coulter actually harrumphed that Ruth Bader Ginsburg's academic record was better than Ms. Miers'.

On the left, we have Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and feminist activists such as Marcia Greenberger and Eleanor Smeal blasting the "double standard" applied to Ms. Miers while they oppose her as the president's standard-bearer.

In the middle we have assorted raps on her dress code (Talbots), on her marital status (single), on her work ethic (workaholic), even on her devotion to detail. Yet when Laura Bush cried sexism, she was derided as retro. If sisterhood is powerful, what do you call this? Impotence?

One thing the Miers nomination has brought to the front is the way red and blue have trumped pink and blue. In Tina Brown's words, "Ten years ago, there would have been a lot of reflexive solidarity" for a woman nominee.

Go back even further to the halcyon days of the suffrage movement and you find the anti-suffrage movement also led by women. The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage numbered 350,000 in its heyday. One of president Josephine Dodge's rationales for fighting suffrage was that the vote would wreck the nonpartisan unity of women reformers. If Mrs. Dodge were alive now, would she be saying, "Told you so, told you so"?

Today, partisans are poles and polls apart. Nevertheless, Democrat Celinda Lake and Republican Kellyanne Conway, who do pink and blue polling for their red and blue clients, collaborated on a new book called What Women Really Want. This odd couple found a sister 'hood where shared concerns for issues such as health care, pensions and children top the priorities.

They write, rather too hopefully, that women are "quietly erasing political, racial, class and religious lines to change the way we live." But in real life, the 'hood keeps getting wrecked: Gender is trumped by ideology, shared issues are blown away by partisan fingers on the hot buttons.

It's no wonder that television's first female commander in chief was cast as an independent. It's no wonder that Geena Davis got criticized anyway - for her lipstick.

I am not suggesting that women stand behind their woman, especially if she returns the favor with an elbow to their rights. The latest news - that Harriet Miers once supported a constitutional amendment against abortion and has been dicey about the existence of any right to privacy - is alarming. Her confirmation might, ironically, depend on the Democratic belief that she's as good (if bad) as it gets.

But it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time, to see sexism even in the criticism of an opponent, to rue the double standard even when it is applied to someone you don't stand with. She's not qualified? Compared to whom? Clarence Thomas? She's unknown? Compared to whom? David H. Souter?

Finally, it's absurd to think we've moved into a gender-blind era without ever getting rid of the blinders. It's self-deceptive to think we're in a post-feminist world when we never tried a feminist world. Harriet Miers is one of us. Now let's just hope she knows it.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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