First Ladies, Second Sex

First Ladies, Second Sex

by Merle Hoffman

It was one of those defining moments: I am watching the finals of the Miss USA pageant and the tension is palpable. Dick Clark reaches into the large glass fish bowl and chooses the question, the answer to which will decide the winner from the six semifinalists. Miss Kentucky is up her blond hair cascading wildly down her shoulders as she faces her judges. “Would you rather be President or First Lady?” I hold my breath is it possible? Not a moment of hesitation as the young woman flashes a brilliantly toothy smile and says, “First Lady of course. We all know how important it is for any man, especially the President, to be kept in line, and I think that would be one of the most important jobs in the world. “Enthusiastic applause greets her as she basks in the righteousness of her response. Miss Kansas was next. “If it were a hundred years from now and you could look back at this century, what woman do you think made the greatest contribution and why?” Her answer, just as fast and breathless, comes effortlessly: “Barbara Bush because she keeps George Bush in line.”

I sighed the sigh of the damned, a defining moment indeed, “define and conquer” -just another reinforcement of the historical and collective realities. These young women have learned their lessons well and fleshed the “myth” of woman -given form to the continual creating and creation of the archetypes known as female and feminine. For as Simone de Beauvoir has written: “One is not born, but becomes a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society. It is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch which is described as feminine.” (The Second Sex)

This “myth of woman,” this “mark of gender” that is placed on the female form is taught early and well and has at its core the concepts of derivative power, masochism, low self esteem, sex, sexuality, self effacement and the reproductive imperative. It is by and through these vehicles that stereotypes of woman are realized and it is within these categories and qualities that women are defined and judged.

Both Miss Kentucky and Miss Kansas, along with millions of their sisters, started their education in “woman” very young in a school system that has been proven to systematically shortchange and discriminate against girls. A new report by the American Association of University Women (A.A.U.W.) presents data which gives lie to the myth that boys and girls receive equal education. “The wealth of statistical evidence must convince even the most skeptical that the gender bias in the schools shortchanges girls.”

Among the findings were that “teachers draw less attention to girls, that reports of boys sexually harassing girls are increasing, that textbooks still ignore or stereotype women, and that girls learn almost nothing about many of their most pressing problems, like sexual abuse, discrimination and depression.” In a previous study, the A.A.U.W. reported that girls’ self esteem drops markedly as they approach adolescence, as “students sit in classrooms that day in day out deliver the message that women’s lives count for less than men’s.”

And it is not only in school where one learns how to wear the subservient mark. Reinforcement comes through attorney and by most definitions brilliant and tough, in the Washington Post describes herself in equestrian terms: “I ride hard, I ride fast -there is no room for error and if there is error, you hurt yourself very bad.” Her fear of falling is second only to her anxiety about failing to adequately protect her husband’s image.

In 1988, when Dan Quayle was nominated as Bush’s running mate, Robert D. Orr, the then Governor of Indiana, confirmed that the Senate seat her husband vacated was hers for the asking. “It was mine if I wanted it,” Quayle says, but she could see that if she ever voted against the administration, she would create a “big story” that would be “hard on the President.” (Washington Post 1/27/92)

Hillary Clinton also plays the Number Two slot -both are tigresses who guard their men and their families. Hillary, described as brilliant and a lawyer, is, according to the Wall Street Journal, “so accomplished and an advocate so polished that she sometimes left audiences wishing that she and not her husband was the candidate.” According to the Journal, Hillary was also a good student of the “feminine.” After her husband lost his re election bid partly because she had not changed her last name from Rodham to Clinton, she publicly became Mrs. Clinton and the voters rewarded the Clintons with re election. Hillary Clinton also practices the subtler aspects of the supporting role: She beams at her husband on stage a la Nancy Reagan and even changes the way she speaks to sport a southern accent, to underscore the point that she has absorbed and been absorbed by her husband’s persona. She also has learned, as Barbara Bush did before her, to bear her husband’s public infidelities with grace under pressure. Hillary’s denial that she “unlike Tammy Wynette was NOT standing by her man,” was obviated by actions which proclaimed loyalty at all costs.

Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush and Marilyn Quayle have all taken the road more traveled to power -the supportive, derivative road. They are evaluated only in relation to how their husbands careers are affected, and therefore judged by a different moral standard -held accountable for their actions on a purely reflective basis. Unable to exist films, as autonomous individuals, they are as autonomous individuals, they are exempt from real moral responsibility. All decisions must be made for the good of the “state” -the good of the husband and the family -often to their own detriment. The harshness of the 1988 campaign and the barriers to her own career came as a surprise to Marilyn Quayle. She says she prefers to call them “yield signs here and there you do keep hitting those yield signs.” The yield signs can also turn into brick walls when the compromises demand loyalty to one’s husband before honor and courage for oneself.

It has long been rumored that Barbara Bush is pro-choice -a political stand that obviously has no effect on her husband and one that Barbara keeps quiet for fear of compromising his political agenda. This level of personal and political sacrifice is writ large in the case of political wives, but is mirrored in the lives of millions of women who do not hold positions of power and authority. It is merely the extension of the Madonna image -the mother -the all giving nurturer who continually places herself second for the good of the family and by her omissions reinforces the status quo.

If the “Good Girl” and “Number Two” are the roles for which most of the Miss USA contestants are priming themselves, they also may at some time in the future find themselves in the position of “Bad Girl.” Or, what has been recently categorized as the “Bimbo,” the ultimate sex object. The Bimbo is usually a bleached blond, tall, buxom, with a “career” in some sort of entertainment field. Hillary Clinton describes Gennifer Flowers as “some sort of failed cabaret singer who doesn’t have much of a resume to fall back on, and what’s there she lied about.” (Wall Street Journal) She’s the new female prototype. The newly created archetype. The Bimbo is sexual, she’s bad, she fucks powerful married politicians or she knows about their hidden proclivities and she commits the cardinal sin of telling. Or we have the “Accuser,” the role of women who often stand within that ambivalent gray area, that porous divide that separates the Good Girls from the Bad. The Accuser(Kennedy Smith had one, Tyson had one, Thomas had one and Bill Clinton’s campaign almost went into a free fall because of one), is a version of the Bad Girl. She is often viewed as fatally flawed, ambitious, money grubbing, money hungry, gold digging, a girl who doesn’t play by the rules, who cries foul or rape to get attention, publicity or money. The Accuser may be a good religious girl, she may be a virgin hitherto untouched, but her coming forward -her speaking against one of the patriarchy -immediately places her in the Bad Girl category. The only mitigating factor in this configuration is if the Accuser can position herself as much as possible as a victim -then and only then she may be given the benefit of the doubt. Anita Hill was too arrogant and self assured; Patricia Bowman too sexual and weak; even Desiree Washington had to confront questions about why she went out at two a.m.

The Bimbo derives her power, as does the Accuser and Good Girl Number Two, differentially and derivatively -often using a sexual incident or her sexuality itself as a weapon. Interestingly enough, these roles are not static but flexible. Women can pass from one to the other, frequently inhabiting more than one role at a time. The Bimbo may find herself in the role of the Accuser and the Accuser may in fact be a Bimbo who takes on the role of the Accuser (Gennifer Flowers) seeking justice, revenge and perhaps self respect -some sort of recompense for laying her body down or for having it laid down against her will.

“Women are created and not born” -who is creating the Bimbo and Accuser? Are women creating themselves in these roles? Is there any choice or self definition possible? Is Gennifer Flowers an artifact – a creation that comes fully equipped with tape recorders, bleached blond hair and the ability to turn men on by, according to the NY Post, “sucking on their lower lips.”

Joe Klein, writing in New York Magazine an article entitled “The Bimbo Primary,” believes that the Bimbo doesn’t even exist in and of herself but is a political phenomenon, an artifact of recent campaign strategies. “There was some talk in Democratic circles that Clinton might steamroll his way to the nomination, and then he was confronted by the ultimate American political challenge -‘The Bimbo Primary.’ This involved much more than just the allegation of a 12 year extramarital affair leveled by a remarkable, if inevitable [specimen] named Gennifer Flowers.” Klein also describes Flowers as a “failed cabaret singer if ever one walked the earth.” He demeans her because she doesn’t even play the role of the Bimbo accurately. “I loved him,” she said, doing absolutely nothing creative with the word “loved.” Gennifer not only failed the Good Girl test but the Bad One as well, which demands that not only are you a fallen sexual woman but that you fall, unlike Marilyn Quayle, “softly.”

So now the Bimbo gains power and definition beyond the female. She – it -now, becomes the ultimate political test of a candidate’s ability to manage the media storm created by her coming forward. As with all macho political games, everything is a matter of winning and losing. Klein feels Barney Frank won (his Bimbo was a male homosexual prostitute), John Towers lost, and Clarence Thomas won “confronted by a woman far more formidable than a Bimbo.”

Indeed, there is even recognition that the Bimbo is also an advertising strategy. According to the Wall Street Journal “advertisers are finding their portrayals of women just aren’t ‘politically correct’ anymore.” Now a few are taking the first tentative steps to redefine women in advertising. Old Milwaukee Beer still hasn’t given up on its much maligned bikini team but Anheuser Busch has launched a new campaign featuring women as “real people rather than sex toys.” Real people? -who’s deciding?

Hill, Bowman and Washington inhabit another new configuration of the female -that of the Accuser. The Accuser may be a Good Girl or Bad. Most often she combines both qualities, but just by becoming an Accuser she steps outside of the patriarchy and the traditional Good Girl roles. She becomes the ultimate “whistle blower.” Her definition and acceptability depend on her past history, her socio economic level, her race and her class.

Hill stood on the divide between good and bad. A feminist heroine to many, she remains an enigma whose motives and character are still in question. A cover story in American Spectator entitled “The Real Anita Hill”, by David Brock, assembled evidence that Hill is weird, a radical feminist, at least mildly incompetent and, of course, that she lied about Clarence Thomas. bell hooks [as she styles her name], discussing Hill in Z magazine, says that rather than presenting her testimony as a feminist victory, it was the absence of either a feminist analysis on Hill’s part or a feminist response that “made this spectacle more an example of female martyrdom and victimization than a constructive confrontation with the patriarchal male domination.”

Hooks thinks her long silence on Thomas happened because Hill was acting as a “dutiful daughter,” another variation of the Good Girl. ” Hill never truly confronted the patriarchy because her discourse never stood outside of it. She was, to the end, a daughter of the system.”

Hill believed that the system would work for her -that she could tell her story of disrespect and abuse and have the Senate Judiciary Committee offer a c collective rebuke. She did not predict, t foresee or expect that the racial specter of a Black man lynched was to prove a far more powerful bonding tool than any accusation any woman could make against a “brother.” The system worked. It worked to insure that any threat to its totems and agenda were to be removed, eliminated or destroyed. The tactics used on Hill were traditional and historic. A recapitulation and redefinition of the Good Girl/Bad Girl themes, but now the mix of sexuality and masochism there was added a bit of the psychiatric; the myth of female madness along with the specter of witchcraft. The only thing Jill was not accused of was having intercourse with Satan in an open field on Sabbath night.

Hill has now entered the vaulted state of celebrity and has made the transition o media star with talk show appearances, interviews and magazine covers. She remains for some the heroine, others, and example of the long Black woman, and still others will always regard her as a woman who sold her honor for her ambitions. But she was, and will always remain, first and foremost Thomas’ “Accuser.”

During the Thomas hearings there was much talk of a “lot of anger out there.” The country went through a consciousness-raising session about sexual harassment, money flowed into the coffers of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and there were public cries for more women in government. Since Washington and Bowman, more rape victims have stepped forward and women now have role models (real women) for standing up to the system -ambivalent and imperfect as these symbols may be.

There is also talk now of a new “womanism” -a stand, a bridge, a realpolitik of feminism that would allow for brilliance, excellence and ambition, but with a difference. This brand of feminism would exist in a controlled, directed secondary (partnership) form. No longer the little woman behind the man or the power behind the throne, it is now the big woman next to the man -a radical traditionalism masquerading as feminism. After all, Hillary Clinton was not asked to be Bill Clinton’s running mate. She remains his bedmate even as she sits on six corporate boards.

But if feminists are to achieve ever greater power – if we are to roll back the enormous wave of repression, specifically the potential loss of abortion rights, the “anger out there” has to be far more directed, focused, and on the surface.

Feminists and the feminist movement are society’s Accusers, and as such they are now poised to receive the same minimization, disbelief and directed aggression as any individual woman who stands up against a powerful man. They are poised in fact to be society’s ultimate Bad Girls.

Real revolutions, like great social changes, don’t happen just because Good Girls get angry. Anger is not enough. Good Girls have to get bad. Bad Girls do something. Bad Girls say no to the system, no to the historical definitions of female and not to the historical oppression of their class

When Barnard college asked entering freshman to list women they most admired, Eleanor Roosevelt was on the top of their list. Mother Theresa, Golda Meir and Madonna were also named

Good Girls or Bad? Who’s deciding?

Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.