Maybe the radical feminists deserve a little pity, or at least a bit of tea and sympathy. Some of them are still living among “Mad Men.” That television soap opera of the manners and mores of Madison Avenue in the 1960s ended its fourth season this week with a Freudian treatment of conventional male fantasy. Don Draper, the top dog at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce asks his secretary, who has shown mothering instincts baby-sitting his children on a vacation trip to California, to marry him. The most creative woman in the ad agency, who saved the firm by landing a lucrative account for pantyhose, is simply a sad single woman without a man.
Fast-forward to real life in 2010, when “secretary” can mean secretary of state; three of the last four such officeholders have worn pants over their pantyhose, the fashion du jour. In “Mad Men,” a career woman is dumped as a prospective wife in favor of the maternal girlfriend. In real life, a Republican woman, a mother of two sons and a billionaire businesswoman who has successfully balanced family and work, has a genuine shot at being elected governor of California. Her family followed her to California when she was chosen to be chief executive of eBay.
Meg Whitman should be a feminist icon, but the dwindling gloomy band of radical feminists is too busy pouring new whine into old battles to celebrate success. In a description of “feminism’s ritual matricide” in Harper’s magazine, Susan Faludi, 51, who has documented the movement for 30 years, writes that the embittered older women are caught in a civil war “with younger women declaring themselves sick to death of hearing about the glory days of ‘70s feminism and older women declaring themselves sick to death of being swept into the dustbin of history.”
At the convention of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in Indianapolis not long ago, the delegates bogged down in generational rants and recriminations: The Granny Grumpies of Betty Friedan’s revolution felt unappreciated as “a bunch of old bags who need to get out of the way,” pushed aside by the bikini-waxed, stiletto-heeled, twittering bloggers who enjoy being called “girls.’ ” They reprised the conflict of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s run for president: Courtney E. Martin, a young feminist writer, confessed on Glamour magazine’s Glamocracy blog that she wasn’t backing Mrs. Clinton because the one-time first lady reminded her of “being scolded by my mother.”
In a more logical world, such feminists would see Sarah Palin as a fulfillment of their cause and the affirmation of their revolution, an independent, gun-totin’ married mother of five who not only governed a state but became an authentic candidate for vice president of the United States. But the radical feminists can’t abide her conservative politics, so they denigrate her smarts. She’s put down as a howling she-wolf in Mama Grizzly clothing. Radical feminism was never about making the path easier for all women, only for the women who agreed with the radical feminists’ agenda. So it was only a matter of time until conservative women would give birth to their own politics.
Five Republican women are competing for seats in the Senate this year. Many more are running for the House and for governor in their states. They’re concerned about the direction of government, just like Sarah Palin, who has been a catalyst for their political ambitions. “She opened the door and showed that women could pass the money test,” Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez tells CNN. “It’s exciting for us because on the Republican side, it is building that back bench of future leaders who could potentially be presidential candidates.”
It’s not coincidental that conservative women have risen with the Tea Party movement, which they found more open and welcoming than the more straight-laced Republican organizations. This gave them the courage of their rage, and some even call themselves feminists today. “I’ve been to 15 Tea Party meetings and never heard a woman called a name just because she’s powerful,” a woman in Mount Vernon, N.Y., tells Slate magazine. “I guess you could say the Tea Party is where I truly became a feminist.”
Tea Party politics offer political consciousness-raising meetings for such women, enabling them to cut their Mama Bear teeth on local issues, mostly around their children’s futures. This is playing in a league a cut above the PTA. If they could balance their checkbooks, these women asked, why couldn’t the guys (and gals) in Washington balance theirs? That’s the question, asked with the feistiness that once was a mark of their older sisters, that led to high noon at high tea.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.