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Jewish World Review April 21 2005/ 12 Nisan, 5765

Suzanne Fields

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Feminist mystique and sourpuss power | NEW YORK — New York is in love — with women. Tall ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones. Feminine ones and feminist ones. Women in clothes that revel in the colors of spring, green, pink and yellow on fashions with flowers and flounce. Young women who bare their midriffs. Women of a certain age, full-figured and petite, in designs exuding competence and confidence with an emphasis on prettiness.

Well, it's spring, after all.

Two museums feature women in all their variety. Uptown at the Jewish Museum, an exhibition celebrates women who made a difference in the worlds of art, music, literature and politics with their salons, where witty and engaging conversation nurtured creators of modern culture and shaped political attitudes. Midtown, at the New York City Library, an exhibition highlights "Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era," showing how women rebelled boldly and stylishly on behalf of motherhood and public life, offering conservative and liberal ideas in a man's world where women were moving up.

What's truly extraordinary about all of this is how the city itself exudes the feminine in its celebration of women power. Gotham feels very different this season from Washington, which seems caught in an embrace of sourpuss pucker power. Think the strident Barbara Boxer, the senator from California nastily berating John Bolton, the president's choice for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Or consider the debate over whether the Army, strapped for recruits, should figure out a way to send women into combat in violation of policy (and the wishes of the commander-in-chief). The Army wants to cover the controversy under the rubric of "gender decisions," with confusion and obfuscation over subverting a settled policy and putting the lives of both men and women in unnecessary danger.

We have become accustomed to a coed military, but the settled policy is that women should stay out of combat both for their own good and for the good of the men. But the Army has come up with a wacky scheme of putting women in support units close to combat, to take them off the battlefield when the shooting starts and put them back when the shooting stops.

Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, was asked at a Washington forum whether male soldiers have a "moral responsibility to be protective of women . . . rather than employing them in hostile and dangerous circumstances to be killed and to kill," and his meandering, mealy-mouth answer would have disqualified him from anybody's salon where clear thinking and bright conversation was the price of admission.

He replied that it was "an interesting question" that he would never have thought about, which was an interesting admission from the man in charge of the Army, and went on, weakly: "I think we have moral responsibility to protect the weak regardless of gender, and I do not see this as a gender issue."

The questioner, a retired general himself, then asked whether men who hold the traditional male moral commitment to protect women, "as some of us have been trained to understand as youngsters," would be disqualified from serving in the new Army. Gen. Schoomaker, the father of two daughters, responded with a flippant riff about men and women seeking refuge in the same tornado shelters in Oklahoma, and, with mocking irony, suggested that since highways kill men and women in great numbers, maybe women shouldn't drive: "That's dangerous, too."

Whether feminine, feminist or a mix of both, visitors to the museums here in New York get testimonials to the traditional differences between men and women. Women can break down barriers to opportunity, and men, many of them reluctantly, have learned to relate to women as their equals in thought and action. But except for an eccentric few, women do not want to become warriors.

In the fashionable salons, women were thought to offer a civilizing tempering of male brutishness and boorishness. Though the worlds in which the salons flourished were not always kind to women they were credited with grace and the means to soften the harsher edges of life in a rough civilization. Women pushed along human progress. If the mind had no sex, the body did.

In contemporary America, where feminist ideas are in ascendancy and women occupy professional positions in the public sphere unimaginable in those earlier times, it nevertheless beggars the imagination that in Washington certain men pursue — under the public radar — a sneaky policy to push women onto the battlefield whether they should be there or not. If this is the next rung on the ladder of female accomplishment, most women would agree that the feminist revolution has gone awry.

Time to bring back wit, conversation and the salon.

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© 2005, Suzanne Fields. TMS