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Jewish World Review June 26, 2000 /23 Sivan, 5760

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
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How Hillary inspired the feminist infobabes

A third wave of feminist thinking was born out of frustration with the First Lady, but can it outlive her political career?


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WHATEVER HER CRITICS SAY about Hillary Clinton, she has done American politics a service. The First Lady has managed to provoke a new wave of feminist thought from women irritated by her own brand.

Back in the days before Hillary - right up to 1992 - American women who were looking for a women's agenda had two alternatives. They could sign up with the old left-leaning sisterhood of feminism, institutionalised by the National Organization for Women (NOW), and fight gender discrimination. Or they could head right and fight abortion with Phyllis Schlafly, an arch-conservative, and her Eagle Forum.

It was an unsatisfying choice, particularly for those who sought a political philosophy that went beyond the old abortion and discrimination questions. As in western Europe, any woman in America who dared to say in public that women were not victims was generally dismissed as harsh or disloyal.

Then came Hillary. Right from the start, she used her pedestal as First Lady to advance the old collectivist brand of rights-oriented sisterhood. Her sweeping healthcare programme was marketed in part as something that would be good for women. After it failed, she flew the women's banner when pushing for smaller public sector expansions. Her book It Takes A Village, describes France's state-subsidised toddler care as almost "too good to be true". She also fought for new anti-discrimination measures, a step that seemed retrograde in America, a country where women-owned businesses are expanding faster than businesses owned by men.

Meanwhile, the First Lady's allies in the feminist movement and in the Democratic party worked hard to isolate opponents by labelling them anti-woman. Gloria Steinem, for example, called the Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison a female impersonator.

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"When they came across women who didn't agree, they said 'those aren't real women'," says Laura Ingraham, one of Hillary's critics, and the author of a new book, The Hillary Trap. The fact that the privileged Mrs Clinton occasionally included herself among the victims - her book rails at the insensitivity of her old law firm to her need for maternity leave - struck some as grating and hypocritical.

Soon a new political grouping came into being - call them the anti-victimhood crowd. Their goal was to build a political agenda strong enough to compete with Hillary's. These new feminists saw themselves not merely as the opponents of the old ones but also as their intellectual daughters and heirs.

"It's long past time we should be able to say you are not a victim if you don't want to be a victim," says Barbara Ledeen, another Hillary critic. "Hillary energized a new Third Wave of feminists, who have a more nuanced view of feminism than the second wave, the 1960s feminists. We fight for things like individual freedom, in business, or in the family."

The most influential of the new groups is the Independent Women's Forum , formed by Mrs Ledeen and others. Unlike previous women's non-profit organizations on the right, the IWF does not even address the abortion issue. Instead, it lobbies on behalf of women for causes formerly presented as "anti-women".

NOW, for example, had formed an allegiance with the gay rights movement to block any testing for AIDS on civil rights grounds. The IWF successfully opposed this, pushing through federal legislation that required testing of pregnant mothers, to minimise transmission of the virus. It also lobbied to support America's rare single-sex boys' schools, recently targeted by the Justice Department as discriminatory.

In its campaigns, the IWF was joined by new anti-Hillary figures, many of whom sought to lay out visions of the feminine life that were neither old left or far right. Among the most articulate of these is Danielle Crittenden, the Canadian-born author of What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us. Like Melanie Phillips, the British journalist, she suggests that more women may prefer to stay at home to take care of their children full-time than the media suggest.

The new feminists also include a number of free marketeers. Wendy Gramm, a former commodities authority and the wife of Republican senator Phil Gramm, has fought to spare small businesses excessive gender-oriented regulation.

In the personality-obsessed media, the focus has been on the youth of the "infobabes," as some of the new crowd have been dubbed. Ms Ingraham first became famous when she appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine in a leopard-skin skirt. Amy Holmes, an IWF research associate, was recently included in People magazine's list of "the 50 most beautiful people in the world". There is also the pleasure of a generational catfight: television bookers frequently set up debates between old-style feminists and their new rivals.

But Third Wave content has also done its part to grab attention. One of the IWF's most-quoted works is a booklet called Women's Figures, disputing that there is still a huge wage gap between women and men.

Lately, with Mrs Clinton's candidacy for the New York Senate slot, the Hillary wars have heated up. This spring has seen the publication of three anti-Hillary books. And there are signs that some voters are receptive. Polls indicate that single women in New York State are more supportive of Mrs Clinton's opponent, Rick Lazio.

This year also brings the biggest threat to the new movement. If Mrs Clinton is defeated - a real possibility - it will no longer have a figurehead to pillory. The partisan game may have been fun while it lasted, but the Third Wave ladies must prove their ideas have staying power if they are to match the achievement of their feminist mothers.


JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.

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