Amid schadenfreude, sympathy for Martha

A move to save Stewart - and her products - draws on old anxiety about women's roles.

. - Call it sympathy for the diva. In the wake of Martha Stewart's conviction last Friday, a wave of compassion for the steely domestic doyenne has swept through water-cooler conversations and onto editorial pages.

Some of her greatest devotees have dubbed this Saturday "National Save Martha Day," complete with Uncle Sam posters proclaiming: "I WANT YOU TO HELP SAVE MARTHA!" "Knit-ins" are planned at Kmarts around the country, at which the faithful will wear Martha Stewart gear, buy Ms. Stewart's products, and urge fellow shoppers to do the same. And an online "Pardon Martha" petition is circulating, bound for President Bush.

While many agree with the jury that Stewart lied and got what she deserves, her supporters, many women academics, and even some who watched the trial with a morbid fascination, see a deeper morality in the story. To them, her downfall is about questionable justice, media bias, and a deep-seated cultural anxiety over the rich, successful, and female.

"Most women are actually very torn about this. Most are convinced that she did violate the law, but on the other hand they're very uncomfortable with the glee with which she's been brought down," says Susan Douglas, a professor of communications at the University of Michigan. "It's a glee about women stepping out of their place and [the public] slapping them down when they do, and that makes women very uncomfortable and angry."

And that, says John Small, editor of www.SaveMartha.com, has produced "an explosion" of support, at least on his website. In the first days after the caterer-turned-domestic-dynamo was convicted for lying about a possible insider stock tip, Mr. Small's website was inundated. Its Save Martha! store had its biggest day ever.

Besides T-shirts and tote bags in tasteful pastels, hot items included mugs inscribed with "If her stock deal is legit, you must acquit," and a Save Martha sewing pincushion in the shape of a voodoo doll, geared for Martha advocates who'd like to stick pins in biased reporters and SEC investigators.

"It's been astounding," Small says. "People have really woken up to the fact that Martha could go to jail while O.J. Simpson and [Enron's] Ken Lay are still walking around free."

Some cultural commentators see the groundswell of sympathy as just the normal polarizing that occurs after major events involving high-profile people or deeply held beliefs. Michael Solomon, a professor of consumer behavior at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., contends that overall feeling about Stewart is probably still negative - in part because of her conviction. But those diehards who supported her before are likely even more dedicated now, which accounts for part of the surge in sympathy.

"Whenever you have someone who has really devoted themselves to a celebrity, a lot of their own self-concept is wrapped up in that person," he says. "It's psychologically very difficult for someone in that position to turn around and say, 'I was wrong, she's no good after all.' "

YET MANY women academics see more support across the board and particularly among women - not just among the old devotees. It's not because they necessarily like Stewart or approve of what she did. Rather, they say, it stems from anger over the nation's still-conflicted feelings about powerful women.

Stewart was the über-homemaker, according to Shirley Wajda, an expert on domestic material culture at Kent State University in Ohio. And that made her a very controversial figure.

"Here's a woman who takes the gentle labors of homemaker, the domestic arts that we're supposed to think of as the province of the meek, the unsung, and the unpaid, and she makes it into a more than billion dollar industry," she says. "She comes across as a gentle mom, but she's really a very good businesswoman. That's gender bending, that makes some people uncomfortable."

Others are skeptical of a sexist streak in media coverage. They see the apparent delight of newscasters and others as part of a long media tradition of relishing its role in bringing down the rich and powerful. And then there's the question of timing: The alleged stock tip took came in the wake of some of the worst corporate scandals in a decade, from Enron to WorldCom - debacles which cost average Americans millions in pension and stock losses. And though Stewart was acting as an individual and hers wasn't a case of corporate wrongdoing, there's been a widespread tendency, of both the public and the media, to conflate the two.

"People are looking for someone to take the fall to collectively pay for all of these indiscretions that these executives have been accused of, and she's a very public target," says Professor Solomon. "She picked the wrong time to do this. If it was five years ago, she probably would have gotten a slap on the wrist."

Indeed, Stewart was charged for lying about an alleged stock tip that garnered her about $50,000. Prosecutors never brought the actual charge of insider trading, and Stewart supporters contend that's because they knew they couldn't prove it. Stewart continues to maintain her innocence - feeding the feeling that an injustice has occurred.

"A lot of women see this as a very powerful backlash and overreaction to a wrongdoing that pales in comparison to what the Enron guys did," says Professor Douglas. "I didn't like her before, I'm not crazy about what she does - the standards she sets are preposterous for most women - but that's separate from the concern about the delight with which a powerful woman is brought down."

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