The politics of stereotypes

Posted: Jan 19, 2006 12:05 AM

Sexual stereotypes often go to war against political stereotypes in Washington. Not since Anita Hill was mocked as a "scorned woman" and Clarence Thomas accused his enemies of attempting "a high-tech lynching" have so many sexual and political stereotypes clashed in confirmation hearings for a nominee to the Supreme Court. Martha-Ann Alito's tears all but drowned the Democrats who had spent the week accusing her husband Sam of abusing women and children.
Certain professional women, who work hard at being as tough as men, were embarrassed by her tears. Women who stay home with their children, content with the role of "wife of," were angered by the suggestion that Mrs. Alito was weak or soft simply because she reacted in an emotional way to attacks on the man she loves. The Washington "wife of" usually hasn't developed the tough, scaly skin she needs to withstand the slings and arrows aimed at her husband's outrageous fortune.

 Others in the salons and saloons of the capital accused Mrs. Alito of cynical exploitation of the feminine wiles once thought to have been consigned to the ash heap of history. The judge in turn was accused of hiding behind his wife's skirts. Liberals said her crying game was a fake; conservatives who notice that the differences between the sexes are still with us -- the Democrats were both astonished and devastated when they saw how the episode was playing out beyond the Washington Beltway -- said nothing is more natural, after all, than a loving wife shedding tears at the sight of her husband relentlessly attacked as a monster of narrow-minded attitudes by a bullying senator with a history of ethical challenges.

 As melodrama, the episode was delicious. There was the chivalric Southerner, Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, galloping to the rescue on a white charger, describing the judge as a "decent, honorable man" and apologizing on behalf of his colleagues to both husband and wife for "having to go through this." Mrs. Alito rewarded him with a hug and a smile.

 All's well that ends well, and we'll see how well it ends for the Alitos next week, when the Senate votes. But it's already a demonstration to both red and blue states of how Washington works: Less important than what you see is how you spin it. The Democrats are the sensitive Mommy Party, eager to make government ever more maternal; the Republicans are the severe Daddy Party, eager to make the citizens ever more independent and self-sustaining. But the Mommy occasionally lapses into insensitivity, as when Teddy Kennedy blusters and badgers like a resurrected Joe McCarthy, less to elicit information than to project guilt by accusation.

 Republicans are instinctively more sympathetic to women who are full-time mommies, Democrats more sympathetic to women who need government day care. Mrs. Alito, who was once a law librarian, sometimes works as a substitute teacher. She's a traditional suburban mother who left her career behind to become the full-time mother of two. She teaches Bible classes at her church. She's educated, gregarious in private conversations and supportive of her husband's career, and she recognizes the hazards of speaking out on politics. She's the kind of woman who is once more under attack in the covens of radical feminism.

 Post-feminism affects to emphasize "choice" -- a woman can choose motherhood or career -- but feminist rhetoric always tilts toward women who choose careers outside the home. Nevertheless, many thoughtful women, like Mrs. Alito, continue to choose to make the family the priority. Such full-time motherhood enrages the likes of Linda Hirshman, who sounds the alarm in an essay titled "Homeward Bound" in American Prospect, a liberal magazine.

 Women, she argues, must wise up, to acknowledge that feminism hasn't gone far enough: "The family -- with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks -- is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government." In her telling of it, home and family is still the deadly trap for women, a trap that Betty Friedan once called "a comfortable concentration camp."

 What's lost here are considerations for the deep comforts of emotional attachment to children and husband, bonds that reward the heart and renew the spirit. Women who appreciate these gifts of the heart can cry when they come under attack. Martha-Ann Alito got a little sound advice from Laura Bush, who told her to "hang in there." The first lady gave the Washington politicians a piece of her mind, too: "I think when anyone is up for confirmation for justice of the Supreme Court or any other job that requires Senate confirmation, it's incumbent upon senators to be respectful."