Cookies vs. Careers

WHEN Hillary Clinton joked about passing out homemade cookies at the Democratic convention this week, the gesture probably served as a lighthearted atonement for her earlier dismissive comments about women who "stay home and bake cookies." But it also appeared to be part of a calculated political strategy to soften an image some voters have found threatening. Goodbye bright, aggressive career woman. Hello pastel suits, shorter hair - and cookies.

A strange contradiction exists in this year's campaigns. If analysts are right, this could be the Year of the Woman in politics. More female candidates are running for national office, and more are expected to win. Opinion polls show that women are being viewed as "agents of change."

But this is also the Year of the Wife - the political wife - with controversy swirling around the appropriate role for a first lady. Americans appear to be applauding the intelligence, ambition, and assertiveness of women who are seeking congressional seats. They are amused by such eccentricities as the admission by Texas Gov. Ann Richards that she would like to ride a motorcycle. But when it comes to first ladies, voters apparently still want a traditional, supportive wife. No career women or "agents of

change" need apply.

Which leaves Mrs. Clinton, a Yale graduate, lawyer, and long-time activist, in an awkward position. As one way of turning what is being called "the Hillary factor" into an asset for her husband's campaign, she is promoting her favorite cookie recipe. She has also admitted publicly that she wants to win a recipe contest conducted by Family Circle magazine that would pit Barbara Bush's culinary skills against her own in a "bake-off."

This softer, gentler ploy harks back to an earlier time, when smart women were routinely advised to downplay their intelligence. But the pretense, however comforting it might be to voters, serves no one well. It diminishes the gains women have made in recent decades, both in the workplace and at home.

Presidential campaigns are not won in the kitchen. Popularity contests among candidates wives' shouldn't have to be conducted there either, pitting recipes against resumes. True equality for women will be closer at hand when future first ladies are able to reflect the diversity of women's lives in the '90s by wearing their careers - and their intelligence - on their designer sleeves without having to minimize or apologize for their abilities.

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