WASHINGTON -- It may be that I am the only American who thought that Barack Obama's off-the-cuff comments to California Attorney General Kamala Harris about her looks at a fundraiser recently were not only not "sexist," but were charming.
If he had said, "Hey, lady, you're really a babe," one would certainly have had reason to complain. But all the president said in introducing her was that Harris was "brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough," before adding that "she also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country."
OK, let's test it. All who agree with me, raise your hands! That's about what I thought. Let me begin by backing up a bit and working toward this chronologically:
When I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago in a working class/middle class neighborhood, most fathers spent little time complimenting their wives or even children. Many were completely non-expressive. I can easily imagine many women bursting into tears if their man had said anything was even "nice." Food would be at the top of the list. Wedding anniversaries? A typical line might be, "Well, I married you, didn't I?" For those of us younger women who went to work or college after high school, to have a man pinch you then was almost a compliment.
So when I hear a man today honestly complimenting "the weaker sex," I feel a strange warm feeling start where my heart is and spread out across my chest and neck. Some would call that happiness. Since I have neither angina, diabetes or lung problems, I can only imagine that is what I'm feeling for all those older ladies I was raised with.
This same week came Margaret Thatcher's death. I could not but notice that there was an underlying discussion that kept breaking out, as to whether the lady was sexy or not, and that former French President Francois Mitterrand was quoted to the effect that "She had the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe."
But it is clear that Margaret Thatcher played her good looks for all she could. She flirted outrageously with her fellow leaders. Hey, look at her during meetings of the G-20 or others -- there were all the men decked out like funeral directors straight from Transylvania, and there was Margaret, almost always in the brightest blue, green or dazzling red suit. And, of course, the matching pocketbook, on the ready for pinchers, mashers or, particularly, anyone who might disagree with her.
Now we have moved up to today, having passed the early feminist period because it was so mechanical. And we might be in the grip of a new feminist period -- one quite different from the first, which simply wanted basic equal treatment for women of all classes, levels and abilities.
The new feminist paradigm is what one might call, "Thoughts of the rich feminists about their successes and your failings."
One important manifesto to enter this new thinking is Sheryl Sandberg's much-touted book, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead." Ms. Sandberg is COO of Facebook.
The book sort of wanders around the idea of its singularly poor title, urging women to lean into work, not to hold themselves in waiting for the full monty of work, husband and children. It doesn't strike me like inventing the hydrogen bomb, but I dare not say that for fear of sounding jealous, which I am surely not.
Then we have Anne-Marie Slaughter, another good-looking professional woman (oh Lord, how did I slip?). She is essentially a diplomat and professor who left the State Department recently after writing an Atlantic magazine piece about how women can't "have it all." Readers acted as though no one had ever said that before, and Anne-Marie ostentatiously returned to Princeton to join her husband and two sons, having learned the hard way.
Ah, but recently in a Washington Post article, the interviewer noted that Slaughter now spends only one day a week at Princeton with her family, and that particular week she was addressing an annual meeting on international law, going to Boston to be toastmaster of the Harvard Law Review banquet, and had been named president of the New America Foundation, etc., etc.
I rest my case.
Two points to make in closing:
(1) Public life in America today should not be Sovietized. It was fun and relaxing for the president to give his compliment. Maggie Thatcher's sexiness or flirtatiousness relieved her harsher characteristics, of which there were plenty. Funny, the hard-line feminists hated her, but she did more for women's advancement than perhaps any woman in the world.
(2) It is time for some creative new thinking on feminism, but this is not it. Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter are upper-class women oddly using the very substance of their critique of women for their own will to get ahead. Good God, don't we know by now that women can't have it all -- and that men can't have it all, either?
Oh, by the way, did you by chance see President Obama talking to interns at the White House yesterday? You know, he's really one good-looking hunk of a guy.