American women have been cleared for combat, but the generals at the Pentagon only think they are the very model of the modern major general. Women have been locked in combat since Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Men and women have been fighting the unending war between the sexes since, giving no quarter but happily taking each other prisoner. It’s a war nobody can win, as Henry Kissinger observed, because there’s too much fraternizing with the enemy.
But when a helpful Amazonian warrior tries to shorten the odds for her side, someone invariably makes a federal case of it. The other day, an innocent volunteer at the Defense Intelligence Agency offered her sisters in the struggle a few tips on how to dress for success at work — and in love and war.
The suggestions were unexceptional enough: Make-up makes you more attractive. Don’t be a Plain Jane. A sweater and a skirt is better than a sweater with slacks. No flats. Paint your nails. Don’t be afraid of color. Brunettes have more leeway with vibrant colors than blondes or redheads.
The result was indignation, not gratitude.
Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the director of the DIA, apologized, as any government official in his position would. He seemed to be aware that he was playing out of his league. He sent a public affairs officer out with the agency’s regrets. “I’m not going to deny that [the briefing] exists,” she said, “and it was bad. It was inappropriate for sure. Neither the agency nor the leadership has condoned anything that was in that briefing.” The clear message, as reported by U.S. News & World Report, is that Jane is free to be as plain as she likes, with neither make-up nor painted nails.
Innocent or not, such advice was guaranteed to offend someone on the scout for something to be offended by. Even now, a lawyer without a client is nosing about the offices of the DIA, looking for business. In his apology, Gen. Flynn called the hints intended for advantage in male-female combat “an unnecessary and serious distraction,” and labeled the presentation “highly offensive.” He hopes the intentions were “pure of heart and intended to help but even smart people do dumb things sometimes no one is going to be taken to the woodshed over this. They’ll require some counseling (to be sure) on what it means to think before you act.”
Still, when President Obama assumes responsibility for providing birth control help for the women of America, you have to wonder why a few beauty tips is such a big deal. Who can say anything is off the table (or under the bed)?
Stamping out slovenliness in a culture so tolerant of slobs is probably a hopeless task even for a government that can win wars on two oceans at once, tame big rivers and send a man to the moon and back. Though the tips and suggestions were the kind of advice savvy mothers once offered to their daughters, and attendance was voluntary, after all, it’s true that our grandmothers could never have imagined that giving such advice is a task for someone from the government, even a volunteer.
Nevertheless, vanity is not a stranger in the boudoir. Americans, mostly but not all of them women, spend billions of dollars every year on cosmetics and other beauty aids. The Commerce Department put the figure at $33 billion for one recent year. Corsets, bustles, push-up bras, control-top pantyhose and other intimate lingerie are meant to tone and burnish women’s bodies. Women’s fashions have changed since Scarlett O’Hara was laced up with a 17-inch waist, for which all women give thanks, but anyone who pages through almost any magazine can see there’s an enormous market for keeping women well armed for war duty. Spanx is the provocative name for the popular, post-modern “shapewear.”
Women in the intelligence services should be the last to be offended by the suggestion that looking good is bad. Mata Hari, the glamorous Dutch spy who died before a French firing squad for service to the Germans in 1917, was faithful to the end to the fashion tradition expected of women in her craft. When her executioners called for her at dawn for her date with the bullet, she kept them waiting while she dressed carefully, in a long black velvet cloak thrown over a silk kimono, filmy silk stockings and high-heeled slippers tied with silk ribbons about her ankles. At last, she pulled on long black kid gloves, and only then told her executioners: “I am ready.” She knew how to dress for success.
Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.