Volume 16 • Issue 40 | March 5 - 11, 2004

TALKING POINT


Are we going back a long way, baby?

By Jane Flanagan

It’s interesting being female these days. In all of the roles: mother, wife or woman.

I keep picking up the paper and reading startling things.

A recent article reported that the F.D.A., originally keen to release an over-the-counter pill to prevent unwanted pregnancy, is now not going to. At least not soon. An advisory panel voted 23–4 in favor, but the F.D.A. is hesitating.

Then I read that the Justice Department is subpoenaing hospital records on women who may have had “late term” abortions.

It’s an unusual way to begin the 21st century, what with the women’s rights movement dominating so much of the late 20th.

I was further surprised some weeks ago by Maureen Dowd, columnist for The New York Times.

She took Howard Dean’s wife, Judith Steinberg, to task for failing her husband.

Dowd wrote: “In worn jeans and old sneakers, the shy and retiring Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean looked like a crunchy Vermont hippie, blithely uncoiffed, unadorned, unstyled and unconcerned about not being at her husband’s side – the anti-Laura.”

Dowd faulted Steinberg, a physician, for shunning the campaign trail to stay home and tend to her patients and high-school age son.

Why? First of all, that description of Steinberg makes me like her not dislike her. Apparently, Laura Bush likes her, too. Mrs. Bush told a Times reporter that she couldn’t imagine why anyone would criticize Dean for avoiding the campaign spotlight. “I think it’s great. I mean it seems like people would admire that,” she told the paper.

A political columnist, Dowd weekly lampoons Washington’s most powerful over the Iraq war, lousy intelligence, corporate greed, etc. But why Steinberg?

I don’t know if Dowd is a wife or parent, but as someone who is both, barbs leveled at women for the way they execute these roles, make me uneasy. These jobs are tough no matter how you do it. Why fault others?

I relate to Steinberg. I accompany my husband to important, job-related events. I do my best to schmooze engagingly on the topics at hand. But it doesn’t come easy. I admire women for whom it does.

So, when I think about being married to a presidential candidate, well I can’t imagine. The schmoozing role is 24/7. Back 20 or 30 years ago, whenever Steinberg got married, she did not sign on to be a candidate’s wife. She married a fellow doctor. Still, when he went political, she stood by him and evidently continues to do so. She just wants her life, too.

Instead of criticizing Steinberg, maybe it’s time to rethink the job she failed to campaign for: First Lady. Forty years after Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” first hit bookstores, the parameters of this high-profile, wifely role continue to perplex us.

Hillary Clinton, who tried to expand outside hostessing and charity appearances, was excoriated. Steinberg, who decided to forgo campaigning, gets labeled “uncoiffed” and “unconcerned.”

In the 21st century women are enjoying the hard won right to choose and combine roles. But the juggling is not easy. And it’s unlikely to get easier anytime soon. If the decisions of First Ladies are met with such derision, it does not bode well for the rest of us. The implications are real, too. Don’t expect corporations to knock themselves out offering flex hours or on-site daycare any time soon.

Speaking of making a choice, that one that Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem helped us secure? It’s not anymore. Now that’s something to find fault with.


Jane@DowntownExpress.com


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