Before the word "sex" was corrupted to "gender" (which was before homosexual was turned into "gay"), feminists described women with a myriad of negative images.
Simone de Beauvoir said we made up the "second sex," as in "second-class citizens," and were little more than "human incubators" if we chose to give birth. Germaine Greer described the female as a "eunuch" no matter what she chose to do. Whether wife, mother, lover or even employee, she was in bondage to men through a metaphorical castration.
Whether we stepped along on high heels or in sneakers, danced on our toes or on taps, skated or jumped in the Olympics, we suffered from the moral equivalence of ancient foot-binding rituals. We stunted our growth.
But at the dawn of the sexual revolution, all that was supposed to have changed. We were told that the brave new world of woman was at hand, if only we would shed the feminine mystique and learn to "take it like a man." We could take our daughters to work, put our children in day care and exchange the bedroom for the boardroom.
"Unsex me!" cried some of the women using the words of Lady Macbeth, goading her husband to greater power, prescribing tough tactics that only men could understand. Others argued for a softer, more feminine approach, creating a better world through a "different voice" that was more "caring" than any man could create.
These two phases of feminism have alternated for the last three or four decades, spreading rhetorical confusion like a seesaw responding to shifting body weights. They're rarely seen in their purest form, but in following Hillary Clinton's journey on the national stage, it strikes me that no woman quite embodies both phases of feminism like she does.
I haven't read her book but, like a lot of other women (and men), I've read the excerpts and watched the interviews. Hillary changes colors like a chameleon traveling across an artist's palate. Watching her is to feel like Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, the private eye in "The Maltese Falcon." When Spade listens to Brigid (Mary Astor), the woman who hired him and is caught lying for the umpteenth time, he marvels at her talent and tenacity. "You know," he says. "You're good. You're really good."
Hillary is good, really good. She plays for the moment. She tries what she thinks will work. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. We have to give her credit for trying. Her personas are like those Russian dolls that fit inside each other. Right now Hillary as Serious Senator is the biggest doll on the outside, but inside we get a glimpse at her former images. She has to give Simon and Schuster a chance to get back some of that huge advance.
We see and hear again about the Arkansas governor's wife in granny dresses and funny glasses, changing her hairdo in the White House. She laughs about all that now. Other images are no laughing matter. We have to look once again at the woman who failed miserably when she attempted to develop a salable health care program.
Many of us saw that power grab as a payoff from straying husband to put-upon wife who went on "60 Minutes" to stand by her man. We had to watch her fight back as the victim of her husband's latest infidelity.
She fought dirty, going on television directing the media to pursue a nonexistent vast right-wing conspiracy out to get her husband when all along he was behaving in a way as sordid as his enemies said he was. (Speaking of Russian dolls, imagine one with images of Monica, Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and finally Hillary herself.)
So does Hillary Clinton reflect the triumph or failure of feminism?
I think she reflects both, demonstrating that today's American woman has more guises at her disposal than ever before, and a public with an appetite for character flaws larger than life.
She stars in a real "reality" show that will continue to titillate us until someone votes her off the island, tells her to leave center stage or ushers her out of the castle. We might have to wait until 2008 for that. (Or maybe no longer than next year.)
In the meantime, she's an "American Idol" and a "Survivor." With the book she's even Ms. Millionaire. It's all tacky, but all true.