Why the doyenne of duck pâté so divides

If only it was just about the handcrafted bird feeders made from gourds. Or the chorizo-stuffed quahogs that are perfect for a picnic at the beach. Or the "hummingbird cake" with do-it-yourself oven-dried pineapple "flowers."

Yet as Martha Stewart begins her very public legal battles, it's clearer than ever that she's one of those rare figures in the pantheon of American life whose influence - and ability to polarize - goes far beyond their chosen sphere. Like Hillary Clinton, Ms. Stewart has become an icon with the most ardent supporters and passionate critics. Her omnipresent homemaking empire has inspired everything from the hot-selling parody "Is Martha Stuart Living?" to the "SaveMartha.com" website, which calls the scandal surrounding her a "tempest in a Cuisinart."

The daughter of Polish immigrants, who brought refined simplicity to the masses, has catapulted herself into some of the most central and combustible debates in modern American life: class consciousness in an egalitarian society, the role of women at home and in business, and the desire for sophistication in a Taco Bell world.

One of the paradoxes surrounding Stewart, of course, has always been that to sell the image of the perfect homemaker, she's had to be the workaholic businesswoman.

"She's like the child of Betty Crocker and Donald Trump," says Kyla Tompkins, a graduate student at Stanford University who has been collecting submissions for an academic anthology on Stewart. One of the reasons Stewart inspires so much hostility from some, adds Ms. Tompkins, is that she stands for perfection, "the idea that perfection is attainable. The natural next step is that none of us can do it, and then we feel like we fail."

For every devoted fan who diligently paints pine cones, clips topiary, and grinds her own cumin, there's an overworked woman who sees Stewart as a living reproof of her cake-from-a-mix and nonmatching flatware world.

"It's not as if I have 24 hours in my day to go traveling and being [sic] shuttled around to drink wine and learn how to make 'blue curacao' mojito recipes in Puerto Rico," reads a typical posting on the Martha Stewart Loathing website.

THE cultural critiques of Stewart reached a new intensity this week after the doyenne of domesticity was indicted on nine criminal counts related to insider trading. She pleaded innocent to all charges. Later, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil complaint seeking to ban Stewart from ever leading a public company. She has since resigned as chairwoman and CEO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (though she will remain as creative chief.)

For some, the conflicted feelings about Stewart came well before the scandal. Marilyn Scott-Waters used to enjoy meticulously crafting wreaths from eucalyptus leaves and coat hangers. Then her son was born. Suddenly, she had no time for domestic niceties. "If I could get his shoes on, I was proud," laughs the Costa Mesa, Calif., designer. Today, Ms. Scott-Waters still grows her own herbs, has matching crockery, - and bears no malice toward the Queen of Good Taste.

She can now laugh about her former obsession with Stewart. "I almost divorced my husband over a squash risotto," she says. "And children don't have a real place in Martha Stewart's world. Children dress up in little dresses and come visit, but they don't leave their Legos behind."

There's also been plenty of populist discontent over Stewart - those antique ribbons wrapped around dried flowers, after all, can cost as much as summer violin camp. Yet Stewart has always stood in part for the idea that you don't have to be rich to have style.

It is her "Everyday" line that most lives up to this goal - by bringing the upscale simplicity of a home in the Hamptons to the Kmart masses. Adapting high style for the proletariat has echoed across the ages with, among other things, the 20th century Arts & Crafts movement. It may even be tied to the American ideal of equal access to success. "The idea that the masses are entitled to live aesthetic lives goes back to the idea of everyone having salvation," says Linda Hirshman, a historian who uses Stewart's baking recipes.

For many Kmart shoppers, Stewart's products are a mixed blessing. Crooking his thumb at a rack of Martha's linens at the Big Kmart in Raleigh, N.C., Chuck Blalock says he's put his foot down: "My girlfriend and I were walking through here yesterday, and we've decided that there's no way we'll buy her stuff." He points to products he deems useless. "There's a Martha Stewart sweater dryer-outer over there," he says incredulously. "Guess how many sweaters it holds? One."

But she clearly has supporters, too. Judy Smith, a retired city clerk and self-described "Kmart queen," believes this is the only place to shop. For her, the Stewart name is all about quality. "She makes quality things and I buy them," she says - including garden tools. Nor will she change her habits. "What happens to her won't affect how I shop any more than the things that Natalie Maines said will stop me from buying Dixie Chicks albums," she says.

The maven of good taste is even getting some support from those who don't buy into her pressed-towel world. In terms of Wall Street wrongdoing, they argue, Stewart's alleged crimes don't even carry the meat of one of her appetizers - especially in the context of last year's megacorporate scandals. She's estimated to have saved some $45,000 in allegedly acting on an insider tip to sell stock. In contrast, Kenneth Lay presided over Enron when the company used accounting fraud to hide losses in excess of $600 million.

In feminist circles, meanwhile, Stewart's image as both perfect homemaker and savvy businesswoman is a complicated one. Some see her domestic-centered message as setting women back 50 years, while other express an admiration for what she's accomplished - and anger at those who may target her in part because she's a powerful woman. "They want her to be all woman or all man and she's neither one of those," says Magalene Harris Taylor, a sociologist in Arkansas working on a book on Stewart.

Personally, Ms. Taylor thinks Stewart has broadened feminism by taking domestic work - which traditionally gets little respect - and using it to become successful. "We embrace Oprah but not Martha Stewart, because she embodies qualities that are not necessarily what we consider feminine."

For many women, it's about finding balance. Scott-Waters says she's moved beyond Stewart to a more relaxed definition of homemaking - what she calls "inner peace through lowered expectations." Some days "it's Tater Tots, other days it's focaccia."

Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report from Raleigh, N.C.

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