What do women want? That was Sigmund Freud’s endearing, if naive, question, asked when “Freudian” still meant a deep look into the unconscious. But the good Viennese doctor, as we’ve learned since, had not a clue to what he was talking about. He posed various notions like envy of you-know-what, that anatomy is destiny. Some were cute, but no cigar.
Waves of women were willing to listen to their feminine intuition to find out for themselves the answer to Freud’s question. Many succeeded, and some of them are turning our politics upside down. They had lots of obstacles to overcome in asserting themselves, but eventually they learned that what they wanted was opportunity and possibility. Like a lot of other people (some of them at a Tea Party), they don’t want their possibilities limited to what somebody else wants for them. Biology and culture are strong determinants, but the individual female wants to decide for herself what she can become - and she proved that she wants to vote for somebody who understands not just her, but the question.
We haven’t heard much this year about “the gender gap,” now grown rank with weeds and trash, though we can expect that no cliche will be left unturned before Nov. 2. Western women in general have been liberated from the disparaging descriptions of themselves as “man haters” and “bra burners.” Such descriptions are mostly relegated to amusing (or bemusing) footnotes to the history of the first stages of feminism. Many of those descriptions - they were never real enough to become stereotypes - were inventions in the media, focusing on women on the fringes of the women’s movement. Eventually, women wore down the ersatz stereotypes, leaving them only to the vulgar and the uncouth. They no longer hold anyone back. Political power accelerates.
Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t lose her run for the presidency because she was a woman. She lost fairly and squarely to the man who ran a smarter, better campaign against her. She could have played the feminist victim, as some of her embittered supporters wanted her to do, but she didn’t. She moved on, without the dot.com. In her meetings with the negotiators in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, as the secretary of state, even in a colorful pantsuit surrounded by men in black, her sex - or “gender,” for the linguistically squeamish - is incidental to power and poise. Nobody seems to care about her hair.
Sarah Palin, as John McCain’s running mate, didn’t lose the presidency for Mr. McCain. She just wasn’t ready and was plucked prematurely. But she’s showing herself to be a fast learner and a quick study. Agree with her or not, she knows what she’s talking about today. She turns out to be a natural.
Both Hillary and Sarah, on their own in different ways, have earned respect, not because they’re women, but because of what they’ve learned about politics and projecting power and how they’re using what they’ve learned. Mrs. Palin is galvanizing the Tea Parties over issues that have more to do with where the country is headed than where women have been. She’s serving strong tea - no prissy organic loganberry or weak elderberry herbal stuff poured from her teapot - and she’s unifying men and women around the issues of smaller government, lower taxes and how to dispose of self-satisfied incumbents of both parties who long ago stopped listening to their constituents.
Women make up a slight majority at the Tea Parties, but that’s because they’ve learned the importance of the issues within a family context of budgets and children. They know it’s not smart to spend more than you earn or to incur debt that ransoms your children’s futures. They’ve become “mama grizzlies” because their cubs are threatened.
The political and the personal have always operated like a seesaw in the modern feminist movement. “We never really escaped from our own narrow, self-gratifying, spinsterish sort of mind,” Germaine Greer said of the demise of the women’s movement. But that was her problem. Most women are not narrow-minded ideologues. They compose their politics to suit their needs of the moment, just like men. Sometimes there’s a time lag until the right leader emerges, but when the leader does, she has a ready-made constituency.
Mrs. Palin, like Gloria Steinem, is usually better looking and better dressed than the rank and file who follow her, but women don’t resent that. She inspires the crowds with her intrepidity, audaciousness and charisma. The best of modern feminism that empowered women has filtered into the individual lives of women; the chaff has fallen away. It’s possible that the best ideas of the Tea Party will succeed in similar ways, empowering the rebels with ideas that can transform the swampy landscape we’ve lived in these past two years.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.