Martha and Hillary - feminism's great divide

Hillary Clinton and Martha Stewart are both driven, powerful, talented, blondish women. Both have suffered marital woes, both have one daughter. Both find their every move vivisected. With so much in common, it's odd how far apart public perceptions of them are.

Martha, indicted Wednesday in connection with an insider trading scandal, has been demonized. And even before her legal woes began, her leftover Hanukkah-candle bikini waxes were fodder for comics everywhere, a unifying factor in a world of conflict. Feminists derided her for the double whammy: making women feel inferior if they couldn't keep up with her horrifying combination of skill and energy, and suggesting - oh, the humanity - that looking after a home might be a worthwhile pursuit.

Hillary is about to release her mightily remunerated autobiography, "Living History," the cover of which looks like a self-titled debut album. But she's no frivolous entertainer, of course. She's devoted herself to worthwhile causes - her husband's career, her career - not silly nonsense like baking cookies and hosting teas. She has made that abundantly clear.

And overall, she has been treated generously, kindly, even fawningly at times, by the same crowd who gleefully tear into poor Martha. To be sure, Hillary has her critics, but the attacks on her nowhere near approach the vilification Martha has suffered - unjustly, I feel. And the curious combination of victim/aggressor Hillary appears to go mind-bogglingly unchallenged.

Breathless celebrities extol Hillary's value as a role model for young women, but only occasionally will someone uncomfortably admit they like Martha. Had I a daughter, I don't know how I'd feel about her looking up to the former first lady. To willingly continue in a marriage where you're routinely humiliated as your husband gropes about outside your marriage is an odd thing to emulate. Hillary may well have her reasons for sticking it out with Bill. There can't be any question they're devoted to (now adult) Chelsea, but surely children are better off not living a lie.

It has been suggested that Hillary's primary motive for hanging on to the mister has to do with ambition and appearance. I have nothing against ambition, per se. But when it comes at such a high price? Hillary, sadly, fits in well with the world of victimology women have created for themselves. They love her, perhaps, because they can relate - for all our progress, we still can make stupid choices and then blame others for our unhappiness.

In "Living History," Hillary claims shock and betrayal when Bill confessed to the Lewinsky affair. Is she being disingenuous, or is love truly blind (and deaf and dumb), or is a Yale education not worth much?

Martha, on the other hand, liberated from her philandering husband, forged on alone and created an empire. It's true, her divorce was acrimonious. But there's something more authentic, refreshingly human, about Martha's reactions to betrayal, particularly when compared with Hillary's Stepfordesque, tight-lipped denials and buck-passing.

Throughout the ImClone scandal, Martha has so far not blamed anyone, saying the justice system will prove her innocent. Part of Martha's image problem might be jealousy, or the class factor.

Where the Clinton marriage has been parodied as a trailer park saga, Martha's life, on the surface, looks like a John Cheever story. In reality she's the hard-working daughter of immigrants. She has a good deal of humor about herself, too, something she rarely gets credit for. Before the ImClone scandal, she regularly read disparaging Top Ten lists about herself on David Letterman's Late Show. She has also always been beautiful - since her teen modeling days. We've seen Hillary, on the other hand, through big glasses, mousy hair, headbands, and frumpy gowns - mistakes most of us have made.

That may give credence to what I've long thought: Feminism has liberated men in a much greater way than women. While men are freed from many of their previous responsibilities and expectations, women are still at each other's throats, and we still hate the Prom Queen.

Rondi Adamson is a frequent commentator in Canadian newspapers.

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