Iron Maidens

Illustration by Peter Bennett

Martha is a friend of mine, and I’m very sorry for what she’s going through now . . . I think there’s more at work than meets the eye.

—Hillary Rodham Clinton

Aside from the Bush daughters, who (as James Wolcott recently noted) look as if they should be popping from the cake at a bachelor party, today’s first family is the dullest in living memory. This may help explain why ABC got a hit out of last Sunday night’s Hillary Clinton’s Journey: Public, Private, Personal. (Who says liberals can’t get good ratings?) While the show helped viewers fondly recall those heady days when the Oval Office became the Oral Office, it also let Hillary play her assigned role in a modern American ritual. She shared her pain with millions in order to hawk a new book.

Near the end of the hourlong show, which raised countless unasked questions — why would a woman who terms herself “very private” choose to write an $8 million memoir and then promote it on TV? — Barbara Walters posed the one she clearly thought all of America wanted answered: Why had the former first lady continued to stand behind Bill Clinton despite the pain and public humiliation of the Lewinsky affair? The answer revealed Hillary in all her politicized glory. After carefully explaining that Bill was her husband and that only she and Chelsea were entitled to judge his private behavior — you know, the obligatory vulnerable stuff — she got back on message: “He was also my president, and I thought he’d done a great job.” Never let it be said that the junior senator from New York doesn’t keep her eye on the ball.

Not so long ago, one could’ve made the same claim for America’s other favorite iron maiden, Martha Stewart, whose upper lip is so stiff you could use it to scrape ice from a windshield. But as it happens, her story has been following a far different trajectory. Just three hours before Hillary danced circles around Walters, 60 Minutes decided to milk Stewart’s arraignment by rebroadcasting an interview from three years ago. It ended with Morley Safer asking Martha how big she’d be in five years’ time. “I think it will be astonishing,” she replied: “Limitless.” Which was like, you know, really ironic. (Inspired work, Morley.)

Sunday night’s juxtaposition of these two programs was the purest serendipity. For Hillary Clinton and Martha Stewart aren’t just flesh-and-blood women, they’re icons who may have started out relying on their powerful (unfaithful!) husbands, but who eventually made it to the top through their own intelligence and grit. While Hillary remains the most galvanizing politician in the Democratic Party (the 2004 nomination would be hers for the taking), Martha’s self-justifying letter to her fans on got 6 million hits in its first week. Yet despite their success — or more likely because of it — both women unleash enormous enmity. Each has been targeted by investigations that, whatever their legal merits, were obviously driven by political agendas — be it toppling Bill Clinton or jailing a celebrity to prove that the government actually is doing something about corporate crime.

Predictably, most of the recent talk about the two women centers on gossipy questions of character. Why would a shrewd multimillionaire like Stewart risk insider trading just to make a lousy few grand? How could Clinton really believe her pussyhound husband when he said he hadn’t bonked Monica? Yet what finally makes their stories jangle our culture’s nerve ends is something much larger: Hillary and Martha are strong, aggressive, conflicted women in a society still unnerved by such creatures.

Of the two, Stewart has always been the less threatening, but trickier, figure. Even as she rose to become the CEO (and walking logo) of a billion-dollar company, her work remained in a realm traditionally thought of as “feminine.” In fact, her perfectionist cooking and decorating was an almost inevitable response to the changes in women’s lives after the feminist 1960s, changes that found more women than ever going into the workplace but also left millions feeling that they had lost something — the down-home skills once passed on from mother to daughter. Stewart helped revive that knowledge — she’s the obsessive apotheosis of ’40s and ’50s ideas of professionalized homemaking — while updating it for our aspirational days when even Costco sells fine wines. She taught America how to make things “nice” in a world increasingly filled with ugly, prefab vulgarity — crappy strip malls, supermarket baked goods, craftsmen who no longer give a damn. Martha did give a damn, always, and urged everyone to do the same.

Along the way, her vision of the world generated a profound ambivalence. I have many women friends who like what she does and admire her business acumen, yet still can’t stand her personality or the idealized über-hausfrau she has come to represent. After all, it’s one thing to teach people how to make a moist bundt cake, quite another to purvey the image of the domestic goddess in an age when most women have jobs. In fact, the implicit sexual politics of Stewart’s work may help explain why — although she’s a well-known backer of the Democratic Party — her most vigorous defenders have so far been on the right, from MSNBC’s rancid populist Joe Scarborough to the editors of The Wall Street Journal (who have a seemingly infinite tolerance for shady stock dealings). Of course, it’s easy to understand why the right-wing media would embrace Stewart. Not only does her work refurbish old-fashioned feminine roles, but it rakes in a fortune doing it — she’s the very model of upward mobility. You can just picture a Wall Street type dreaming of a wife like Martha keeping the house shipshape, at least so long as he could have some hot-blooded mistress back in his Manhattan pied-à-terre.

Although Hillary has never been more popular — on Monday people lined up at bookstores to buy Living History — she’s a far more polarizing figure than Martha because she feels no qualms about poaching on the traditional male turf of national politics. She’s part of that first generation of women for whom becoming president is more than a hopeless daydream, and living in the White House clearly increased her sense of possibility; rather like Bobby Kennedy after JFK’s assassination, she now has the bearing of one whose destiny is bound to seeking the presidency. While Hillary’s iron-maiden quality puts lots of voters off, that’s no sure barrier to electoral success; as Margaret Thatcher showed, such steeliness may actually help a woman achieve power (although it must be said that the Dame Maggie had far sturdier ideological principles).

Hillary’s ambitions are sweet agony for the right, which has spent a decade vilifying her not for what she actually is — a pragmatic, mainstream Democrat who’s all about winning office — but for being the sort of dangerous radical who would turn abortion and lesbianism into sacraments. Sure, she backed NAFTA, welfare reform and the war in Iraq. No matter. Conservatives still want to believe she’s channeling the politics of 1960s Berkeley, and in the loopy intensity of such a fantasy, one senses a hysterical reaction against the very image of womanhood she represents — brainy, self-assured, challenging in its presumption of equality. Writing about Hillary’s interview with Walters, Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales called her “chillingly chilly” and suggested that “she may have emotions like ordinary people” but is “scarily proficient at suppressing them.”

While merely a cheap swipe, Shales’ words point to a larger truth. Much of the hostility toward both Hillary and Martha has nothing to do with their values or work or even their power. It has to do with their style. They’re thought to be cold, hard, bitchy — in a word, unwomanly — in a culture that still prefers its women, even its ass-kicking chicks, to be soft and openly emotional. We want Jennifer Garner to weep copiously in every episode of Alias. We want the tireless hugging of Oprah, who wears her inner life and battered history like a diamond tiara.

That’s precisely what we don’t get from Hillary and Martha, who think with their heads not their hearts, refuse to give themselves away too cheaply and take no pleasure in revealing their private selves to the mass audience. While these very qualities are generally admired in a man — think of all the positive talk about Bush’s “discipline,” Cheney’s “laconic” Wyoming style or Rummy’s “intelligence” — they’re thought to make a woman controlling.

Of course, what finally matters is who’s controlling whom and to what end. Even as Hillary and Martha get grief for their chilliness and calculation, our country is being run by a bullying male administration that coldly treats every public event as an occasion for fastidious stage management. During last week’s Middle East peace conference in King Abdullah’s summer palace in Jordan, Bush’s handlers ordered a special bridge to be built across the swimming pool so that Bush, Abdullah, Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas could walk toward the TV cameras side by side. When the first bridge wasn’t wide enough for this striking group entry, they had it knocked down and replaced by a bigger one. And to think people mock poor Martha for being a control freak.

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