American Fantasies

American Fantasies

I am going to miss Ronald Reagan. Miss him in places of personal history and political passion. Miss him in a very special way because of the unique place he holds in my life, both objectively and in comparison to other men in the public arena who have entered uninvited to mine.

I remember the early days of our relationship -the glory years after his first election in 1980 -the general euphoria, the heightened expectation -the sense of things changed and forever changing.

A cocktail party, conversation soon after Reagan’s ascension revealed that even my Democratic/Liberal colleagues were swept up by the general euphoria of his election. “Well, we have to give the man a chance… People change once they’re in office, ” etc., etc. But I knew differently. No, I felt differently. The feelings in my guts told me that there was a clear, present danger with this man. A danger made even more palpable and insidious because of the charming quality of its packaging.

I remember one photograph in particular. It was of Reagan in a motorcade after his inaugural address. Bedecked in an elegant morning suit, the camera managed to capture him at an upward angle to his face, standing in his automobile, waving at the crowds. He looked marvelously handsome, powerful and virile. His triumph and exuberant confidence spilled out with abandon. I looked at that picture for a very long time and only now in retrospect have I become aware that some of the feelings he created in me included envy. Envy of this man in this position, in this place and time. This man holding the untold, unspoken and uncounted energies of millions of Americans whose hopes, dreams, visions and fantasies he was expected to fulfill.

The country was awash in an orgy of growing expectations and I was full of envy and alienation. The alienation that comes when feelings translate to intellect and the mind knows where it has to take you. For even as I felt pulled towards the image in the photograph, even as I understood the passionate joy of the crowds and wanted to share it in some primal way, I was afraid.

Ronald Reagan was never afraid, and so we were not. At least we were not supposed to be. But I was afraid. Afraid that in the enormous, generous desire of Americans to be good, Reagan would lead them astray with promises of hope, prosperity, world domination and military transcendence. Reagan would lead and they would follow and I would be left out in the cold with all the other so called “special interest groups” the women, Blacks, minorities, dissidents. The others who would not or could not choose to follow the Reagan politics of exclusion and alienation.

And in the coldness of that outside place I felt a growing anger and aloneness. And I slowly came to feel the heavy awareness of the adversarial necessity of our relationship.

So began my individual odyssey. Very early in 19811 started to travel the country to share my perceptions of Reagan and all that he meant with others who were also out in the cold. I traveled to the small towns in the midwest, the wine ‘counties of southern California, to a dark, forbidding Detroit and home to Philadelphia to bring my messages regarding women, abortion, pluralism and civil rights to any place willing to put me on the air or give .me a debate. I accused Reagan, that great champion of the unborn, of swelling the ranks of the aborted by his economic policies. In 1982,I published a study of 200 women prior to their abortions which revealed that the majority of women interviewed did not consider themselves to be pro choice. In fact, they never imagined themselves in a position where they would be considering the choice of abortion. Never until they were faced with circumstances that led to that very decision. Then their moral/religious value structure had to undergo a profound alteration to enable them to perform an act that they once had considered morally reprehensible. What caused such a stir nationally about this study, which I called “Abortionomics”, was that the majority gave “economic pressure” as the driving reason for their abortions. Within the cult of “Reaganomics” that preached and reinforced individualism, careerism and material benefit, these women were choosing second mortgages and second cars over second babies. And they did not see, nor could they see, any connection between their choice of abortion and the economic policies that led them to it. Indeed, the very idea of a connection between the realities of their everyday lives and the political ruling system were continually denied or minimized.

Reagan successfully managed to address issues of personal pain with a fluency of script that enabled people to believe that their problems were more a result of misplaced “liberal values” than a symptom of general social/political decline. Indeed, two days before the election on November 6, 1988, Reagan was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “On election day what you are really choosing is more than a slate of candidates, it’s a vision of America, a dream we share.”

America, the shared vision. America, the idea and ideation, the cumulative result and creation of millions of pieces of dreams, hopes and struggles. America, existing as a place in the mind articulated by politicians who court us with promises of consummating those dreams. The great dream collectors -F.D.R. and J.F.K. -managed to create this connection between the people and their fantasies -a sense of America that was more than the sum of its individuals. But Ronald Reagan created an America that consisted of a herd of individuals a herd that drew its character from continually reflecting back on itself.

Ronald Reagan was pure folk art -a most uni-dimensional in the simplicity of his image. A wooden cameo in bas relief, casting no shadows.

Yes, l am going to miss Ronald Reagan. Miss the sweet, simple, ideological pronouncements. The leader riding off into the sunset. The odd tilt of the head with the half smile that minimized and seduced at the same time. I will miss having Reagan as my adversary because he was so easy, so obvious, so incredibly simplistic that I was always amazed that everyone else didn’t see through him. Or perhaps it was just because they couldn’t, or didn’t want to, that he achieved so high a level of popularity. Reagan was infuriating to me in his affability -nothing truly angered him publicly other than the attacks on his wife’s shopping. All things political, moral and social were for him equalized and rhetorically neutralized. Even his legendary lack of acute intelligence and true insight made him more lovable to the people -he was accessible and he shared his fantasies with us.

Fantasies of America, Americans and the American Woman. For Ronald Reagan did not rule alone. The male image he projected was supported, reinforced and sold through the expression of and the assistance of his “First Lady”. The quintessential expression of The Reaganesque Republican female form was the President’s wife, Nancy.

Nancy Reagan, bright, ambitious, talented, manipulative, thin and always “at his side” -adoring, simpering, supporting silently and verbally, continually articulating the Establishment’s version of the American Woman writ large always in second place and apparently proud and to be there standing by her man, while behind the scenes she rivals Machiavelli in tactics.

Nancy’s only publicly allowed expression of pure ambition was as a lioness protecting her cub through her verbalized continual concern about her husband’s legacy in history.

Her queenly image belied the reality of a woman who could not control her passion for designer clothing the only socially acceptable lust for a woman of her class and position the lust for power being channeled through her husband.

Nancy’s issue was drugs, the things that people take when they don’t feel connected to the collective dream. Her slogan “Just Say No” could be the slogan for Reagan’s presidency which played out the themes of exclusivity and exclusion. Just Say No to those women, Blacks, children – -Just Say No to all those people who have the temerity to think that the government owed them something.

Ronald Reagan’s monarchial presidency following the “Divine Right of Republicans” through the law of primogeniture insured the continuance of his “legacy” through the election of his ideological and political “son” George Bush.

Bush, who, in his now famous campaign one liner of “read my lips” sent out messages that he intends to give America an even more insidious passive and dependent female form than his predecessor.

Witness his equivocation on the issue of whether or not women would receive criminal penalties if abortion became illegal. Not having given the issue enough thought (after more than eight years as Vice President) he was forced to consult an adviser after the second debate and publicly came to the dubious conclusion that women were the “second victims” of abortion.

By placing women in a “second victim” category, George Bush was merely continuing the view of women that his predecessor had institutionalized: no Equal Rights Amendment, lack of adequate day care, no parental leave, no economic parity, etc. Women were already second class citizens; now Bush was merely expanding their role to that of second class victims! The equivocal nature of his response only served to reinforce the notion that women are indeed merely receptacles of others’ beliefs and motivations as well as receptacles for their term. That women are not active moral agents with their own free will able to snake their own life choices.

This message of enforced “femininity” and passivity is brilliantly played out through the images that our new “first lady” Barbara Bush expresses. Barbara Bush, strong, independent minded matriarch, non threatening and grandmotherly. Her refusal to bend to the pressures of “youth fashion” by not changing her gray hair color or becoming svelte; her dedication to the war on illiteracy, only serve to enhance her traditional image.

Barbara is there to remind us, lest we forget, on just whose side she and all women should be: on and by the sides of their husbands. People Magazine (November 21, 1988) in describing Mrs. Bush stated: “For 43 years Barbara Bush has followed her husband’s ambition wherever it led” This “standing by the status quo” of women in public positions only serves to enhance and reinforce any political moves to the traditional role model of women in society. These women not only support the Male Establishment, but actively participate in minimizing, downplaying and even jeopardizing other women. According to the New York Post (January 24, 1989) “There has been wide spread speculation that Barbara is pro-choice. She has refused to spell out her personal position but says she stands behind her husband. This is the husband who as one of his first official acts made a telephone call of support to anti choice activists converged in Washington.

Barbara Bush can kill, but with a smile, the way a lady is supposed to. Her comment about Gerry Ferraro after the debate with her husband proved that ability: “She’s a word that rhymes with rich’

Interestingly, Bush’s refusal to bend to the confines of fashion place her in a potentially radical role. Doris Willens, writing in the editorial pages of the New York Times, says that “as a woman of a certain age, I am awed by her self confident acceptance of the life cycle. Not for Mrs. Bush the beauty salon cover up of her white hair, nor the anorexic embrace of the ‘can never be too rich or too thin’ doctrine!’ (New York Times, Sunday, December 11, 1988). Willens goes on to write that “if this is part of George Bush’s package of ‘family values: good for him.” [italics ours] Is she assuming that George Bush dictated his wife’s personal appearance for the sake of political expediency?

One wonders while not wanting to chastise Barbara for any attempt at striking a blow for ageism it should not be forgotten that her “traditional role” reflecting “traditional values” is nothing new she’s just being a good girl/mother. Willens believes that Barbara Bush “will be the real thing” by her “acceptance of the life cycle”. The assumption that the life cycle for a woman must include reproduction on a mass scale and complete sublimation to husband and family is questionable. Mrs. Bush’s extraordinary ability at self effacement is described by People Magazine: “She was no less impressive while handling the personal pressures of the 1988 campaign: Confronted with persistent rumors of Bush’s supposed extramarital affairs and stung by mean spirited gibes at her white hair and matronly figure, she deflected the attacks with breezy self assurance all the while tirelessly tending to her husband’s reputation. By her own admission, Barbara, 63, is the quintessential political wife unassuming, deferential, fiercely loyal to her family and she vows to remain so as matriarch of the White House’ For Willens, Barbara Bush is a “personal kind of morning in America”. Others of us find we don’t want to get out of bed!

In the harsh daylight of this new “American Morning” what we see is a President who artfully manipulated media images of morality, family and sexuality in such a complete package that it included his running mate and his wife.

Ostensibly chosen to appeal to both baby boom and women voters, Dan Quayle failed to do both. But what he will do is help the virulent anti choice, anti-women, anti-civil rights factions of this country sleep a little better at night as they await the changes on the Supreme Court.

Dan Quayle, darling of the New Right -Messiah of the direct mailers, a Vice President who believes that a 12 year old victim of incest should be forced to bear a child and who believes it is important to speak up for “those people who are not yet born”. (New York Daily News, January 24, 1989).

And then we have Marilyn Quayle, the perfect mate for Dan. Perhaps no woman better expresses the penultimate version of the 1980s woman than Marilyn Quayle. With her ascension to a female role model we have arrived at the institutionalization of woman as Number Two. This woman is not inferior in intelligence, ambition or achievement. In fact, she strives for full self-actualization so that she may have all he more to offer her husband.

Marilyn Quayle, arch conservative, committed “pro-lifer”, is an ’80s version of Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Reagan -a lawyer who “gave up” her dreams of a legal career so that she could put her energies into her husband’s -has made no bones about her role as coach and script writer -her public stage managing included winking at Quayle and pulling his jacket at specific moments if he was saying too much, too little, too soon or too late. “By his side” – -and proud to be there.

If we want to look for women in the new “American Dream, ” we must first look for the men. In a country where the texture of dreams and the politics of getting them are played by The Boys, the message is sent out loud and clear by the women attached to them. That message reads, we are “woman as right arm”, “woman as mother”, “woman as wife”.

It begins to become clear -America for American Women is the traditional family. For women to truly and actively participate in the American Dream, they must participate in the American Family.

Both the Democratic and Republican conventions played out this message in a religiously ritualistic way. The podiums were awash with the candidates’ families – -children played with balloons and were hoisted on candidates’ shoulders swelling pregnant bellies were addressed with awe while mothers and fathers of the candidates were presented as the archetypes of glowing proud parents. Indeed the unapologetic orgy of family worship that both political parties put on served both as a reinforcing totem and measuring stick from which each citizen could determine how far they stood from the expected norm.

The current idealized woman created by both the Republican and Democratic leadership and buffeted by the myths of Madison Avenue has evolved to reflect a growing conservative mentality which values the status quo and traditional role of women in the patriarchy above all else. Not being able to completely control the growing ambitions and participation of women in the public arena and economy, much energy is necessary to help maintain the false consciousness of women “choosing to return to traditional roles.” Women returning to the hearth and home is represented as if they were travelers in a desert of failed ambitions and competition who have finally reached an oasis. In this supposedly freely chosen place of home, women are once again supposed to find their true natures and self definition. This message is no more blatant and unashamedly played out than in a recent advertisement for the magazine Good Housekeeping.

Showing an attractive yuppie mother with two young children (older boy and younger girl) clinging to her long skirt, the copy reads “She started a revolution with not so revolutionary ideals. She was searching for something to believe in and look what she found. Her husband, her children, her home, herself.” Notice the string of priorities first the man, then the children, then the physical home, and finally at the end “Herself.” This is particularly arresting considering that underlying many of the attacks on the Women’s Movement by conservatives is the belief that the Movement and the politics are fueled by essentially ‘selfish motives.’ The copy goes on to tell us that “She’s the contemporary woman who has made a new commitment to the traditional values that some people thought were ‘old fashioned.’ She wasn’t following a trend. She made her own choices. But when she looked over the fence, she found that she wasn’t alone. In fact, market researchers are calling it the biggest social movement since the sixties.”

By placing a socially created image of women returning to “traditional values” in the context of progressive political, social struggles like the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements, the message reads that by marrying and having children women are participating in a revolutionary movement. Retreat from self actualization and full participation in society is now dressed in radical clothing.

American women are mothers to their children and mothers to their husbands, except when they are not -when 1.5 million of them a year choose not to be and abort.

Women who enter the American dream through the family must do so at their own peril. Being good American girls and desiring to have it all and have it correctly, many young women are in enormous conflict attempting to bridge their goals of motherhood and career. Nadia Moritz, a 24 year old research associate, was quoted in the New York Times as saying “I see the women I’m working for practically losing their minds trying to juggle everything arranging baby sitters, cooking dinner. I’m wondering how I’m going to juggle everything.” Moritz and several friends say that they all know at least one older friend who has confided to them their deep sorrow at not having a child. Describing her mentor who worked 100 hours a week to become one of the first women to be a partner on Wall Street, one woman said “She’s 38, brilliant, she’s wonderful and she worked incredibly hard to get where she is. About three or four years ago, she told me ‘All I think about is having children. ‘ She recently married and now she’s trying to decide whether or not to go through with it. I love this woman but I don’t want to be like her!’ The subliminal message has come through loud and clear. Just as it did when Rosie the Riveter was urged to go home after W.W. II. Now that the Women’s Movement is dead there is no need to prove anything. We all know that women are as intelligent as men, can achieve whatever they want to achieve -we have a woman on the Supreme Court to remind us of this. So now that the race has been run and the trophies put on the shelves, we can all go home to the bosom of the American traditional family and become what we are supposed to be wives and mothers and even if we have achieved great academic or professional heights, we will gladly put them aside for the good of our husbands, families and children a la Marilyn Quayle.

Dr. Katherine Esty, founder of the Ibis Consulting Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts sees problems with this. “There is enormous confusion among young women about how they are going to do this. They have this fantasy that they can get their careers established by age 28, have children, then re-enter the labor force. They’re not aware of the difficulties of staying home and then re-entering the work force. They don’t realize there are consequences. ‘ The non recognition of consequences is another part of the Reagan legacy. They buy now, pay later; the fantasy of everyone having all of everything if they just know the right moves to make. There must come a point in time when women will be able to express pure ambition without the confines of having to dress it in maternity clothes – when the concept of family will be expressed more creatively than the purely traditional one when women will be able to choose unabashedly a life of motherhood and wifehood for at least the formative years of their children’s lives, if this is in fact what they choose to do, without feeling guilty and inadequate.

Yes, I am going to miss Ronald Reagan because the party’s over. The “revolution” he began, the ideological seeds he planted will now start to bear fruit.

I am going to miss Ronald Reagan because now things are really going to get serious. With a subdued female population whose passivity has allowed the E.R.A. to be put on hold and the continuance of massive frontal attacks on reproductive freedom, we can look forward to moving backwards at an alarming rate. The recent decision of the Supreme Court -to hear a Missouri appeal which would overturn Roe v. Wade as early as this year, along with increasing violence against clinics and an expected conservative shift on the Supreme Court does not bode well for women.

Reagan made many promises to the Evangelical Right, appeared at their rallies, publicly supported clinic terrorists, successfully mounted campaigns against federally funded clinics and international family planning efforts -but he did not deliver the bottom line -the recriminalization of abortion which would absolutely and effectively replace women in the old traditional value structure.

The fight to recriminalize abortion is the banner issue for the right wing conservative movement in this country. It is a grave error to assume that the issue is purely the “killing unborn children.” The real agenda here is effectively instituting the major obstacle for women’s full participation in society which is removing their ability to determine the timing and the spacing of motherhood.

George Bush stands at a point where his threat may indeed become a reality. His political (if not moral or ideological) commitment to the religious right along with a more heavily packed federal judiciary and potential Supreme Court replacements makes action (on a reactionary level) on women’s issues of reproductive freedom far more likely. Indeed, in his first official day as President he called abortion “An American tragedy” and said “I think the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade was wrong and should be overturned”. (New York Post, January 24, 1989).

As Barbara Bush and Marilyn Quayle look on and smile sweetly, the general scope of the role of women will be re-orchestrated to bring them “home to daddy” a la “Good Housekeeping.” In this scenario the loss of reproductive and sexual rights fits neatly into a picture which will include back alleys and back rooms for thousands of American women.

Yes, I am going to miss Ronald Reagan but not for very long there’s just too much around to remind me of him to allow me any time to mourn his passing.