Nothing like a good catfight, don’t you think?
Mary Mapes, the once-star CBS producer who got taken by an unreliable source selling phony documents about George W. Bush’s service record, is making her comeback by trashing Katie Couric. Mapes has a book out and is trying to promote it, which is fair enough, but why do it on Katie Couric’s back? Piling on to the week of Couric-trashing, Mapes described Couric as “someone who looks like they’ve been kidnapped and drugged and are making a hostage tape. It has nothing to do with her being a male or female, it’s just not comfortable to watch.”
Then there’s Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in Iraq, for which she deserves our sympathy. She recently announced her retirement from politics, only to now decide that she’s back – this time attacking not George Bush, who is running the war, but Nancy Pelosi, who is trying to stop it. Ms. Sheehan has vowed to run against Pelosi for Congress unless Pelosi files articles of impeachment against the president – as if that would stop the war. Would Cindy really prefer President Cheney, or is she planning to impeach him, too?
And then there’s Elizabeth Edwards, whose courage and tenacity I greatly admire, but whose efforts to bolster her husband’s campaign by moving from Ann Coulter to Hillary Clinton raise serious questions of judgment. A recent headline in the Drudge Report was the classic stuff of catfights: “Gender bender: Wife Edwards says Hillary ‘behaves like a man.”‘ In fairness to Mrs. Edwards, the context made it a little less vicious. Discussing what it’s like to be the only woman in the room, an experience she says she had as a young lawyer, she told Salon:
“Sometimes you feel you have to behave as a man and not talk about women’s issues. I’m sympathetic – she wants to be commander in chief. But she’s just not as vocal a women’s advocate as I want to see. John is. And then she says, or maybe her supporters say, ‘Support me because I’m a woman,’ and I want to say to her, ‘Well, then support me because I’m a woman.’ The question is, what does her campaign tell you about how she’ll govern? And I’m not convinced she’d be as good an advocate for women.”
This is not the first time Mrs. Edwards has criticized Hillary. In comments that made headlines last year (for which she later apologized, but which the magazine insisted were accurately quoted), Mrs. Edwards, while promoting her book, said of Hillary: Clinton “and I are from the same generation. We both went to law school and married other lawyers, but after that we made other choices. I think my choices have made me happier. I think I’m more joyful than she is.”
Say what you will about Hillary Clinton, but no one I know – during her days in Arkansas and in the White House, in her Senate office, and in this campaign – has been as committed to hiring and promoting women to top positions, to speaking out on issues of equality, children’s rights, education, legal representation for women, the whole shebang, as Hillary Clinton. It’s one of the reasons people don’t like her. Her comment that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” which Mrs. Edwards singled out for special criticism, is the position of everyone I know in the pro-choice movement, which I’ve been part of for more years than I care to count.
But catfights aren’t about the merits. They are about the spectacle of women attacking each other, particularly when the woman being attacked is trying to shatter a glass ceiling or a cement wall. What Katie Couric, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton have in common is that each is the first to be doing what they’re doing. Katie is the first woman to solo in a network anchor chair. Nancy Pelosi is the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House. Hillary Clinton is the first woman to mount a serious, credible, front-running campaign for the presidency, the first woman who has ever had a chance of actually winning.
I’m not saying women have to support other women, no matter what they say or do. I’ve taken on Ann Coulter myself, many times, although I’m not sure if that counts given her claims to be “more of a man than any liberal.” I support Hillary Clinton, not only because she’s a woman, but also because I believe she’s the best candidate. If you disagree with her on the merits, of course you shouldn’t vote for her.
But make no mistake. More is involved in the efforts of Couric, Clinton and Pelosi than their own futures. If they succeed, it will be easier for the next woman. It will send a message to our daughters about what’s possible. And if they fail, you can be sure people will say that America just wasn’t ready for a woman in the job.
Susan Estrich is a syndicated columnist and author.