When we left the 20th century there was no woman who could sustain a competitive bid for the presidency. Elizabeth Dole was strong on experience in two cabinet positions, with a familiar last name short enough to be loved by headline writers, a star in a political party that takes women more seriously than Democrats. Republicans make less of a fuss over their sex and more over their abilities. She’s good-looking to boot.
But despite all this she has liabilities. She has never been elected to office, she couldn’t raise the big money. She’s married to a man who couldn’t decide whether to support her or John McCain. She was unable to keep out of the way of George W., the steamroller.
But in the new century Elizabeth Dole, who endorsed George W. Bush this week, is a serious contender to be his running mate if he gets to the point of needing one. She might bring out fresh crowds and expand the Republican constituency.
George W. is popular among women, but Elizabeth Dole could strengthen that popularity. She makes a winning comparison to Hillary Clinton who is running poorly among white women in New York, and it’s hardly racist to note that this is a key constituency.
Unlike Hillary, Elizabeth Dole got where she is on her own steam and reflects accurately the possibilities for women in the new century. Feminism, after all, is really about careerism opening up opportunities for women who want to compete aggressively in whatever they choose to do. She has risen to the top with dogged determination. She married late and didn’t have children. She supported her husband as a wife when he ran for president, but neither patronized him nor compromised herself. If Bob Dole had become president, she said, she intended to continue in her career.
She has always used her femininity as part of her strength. Critics mocked her color-coordinated fashion ensembles, the iron she takes on the road to smooth out suits wrinkled from sitting so long in airplanes, but no one has accused her of creating a synthetic image. If George W. has the opportunity to choose her as his running mate and doesn’t, it will be for the same reasons he doesn’t choose a variety of capable men considering the nuances of politics, personal affinities, geography but it won’t be because she’s a woman.
Elizabeth Dole represents the best face of feminism, though you’ll rarely hear that from professional feminists (as opposed to professional women). The women who have benefited most from the women’s movement are the women seeking the top of the pyramid. There’s a lot of concern about glass ceilings and many remain but women willing to make personal sacrifices for work, as men have sacrificed, have greater opportunities than ever. There’s not much to stop them if they’ve got the talent and true grit.
The losers from a feminist perspective are the women who would take that energy and commitment that true grit and devote it solely to raising families. On the middle rungs of the ladder, between the women who do family work and women who work outside the family, are the women who for better and worse juggle work and children with varying degrees of satisfaction for themselves and their children.
That’s what the discussion of “women’s issues” in the new century ought to be about. A number of my friends (like me) who chose the mix-and-match approach to family and career now often have grown daughters who choose to be full-time mothers. We marvel at the extraordinary demands of family life and are touched by watching them balance those demands and enjoy gratifications and trials that come from being with their children. Like men in middle age, we can reflect on our balance sheets. Our nurturing abilities are not wasted aging parents often require the time and patience our children once demanded. Grandchildren, mercifully, remind us of the joys of domesticity.
Feminism discarded several mythologies on the way to the new world typified by Elizabeth Dole: superwoman, having it all; fathers can be mothers. On the bell curve where we measure achievements we find women with an abundance of choices. In the new century, thanks to the trial and error of an earlier generation of women, women can make those choices with a greater awareness of their consequences for career and family, based on reality rather than fantasy.