How Feminine Is Feminine Enough?

What lessons are we to glean from Hillary Clinton’s unexpectedly large victory, and where are the wise men when we need them? So far, other than an ex post facto blaming of Rick Lazio’s poor campaign, the number crunchers, media pundits, pollmeisters-the whole industry of Monday-morning quarterbacks who tell us what to think-have been notably silent on why what was supposed to be a 4 percent margin wound up in double digits: Did women who said they wouldn’t vote for Hillary end up doing so? Men? Which ones, and why?

For me, one unequivocal truth emerged after Election Day, namely that it’s a lot harder to be a First Lady than a would-be Senator. With an intelligent, nose-to-the-grindstone campaign and “six black pantsuits later,” Hillary Clinton emerged her own person. As the wife of the President and a woman with ambitions of her own, she has finally emerged from an impossible position, her life a constant tug of war between observance of the wifely niceties of makeup, dress and deference in support of her man, and trying to wrest some semblance of individuality from the duties of official coupledom. With each step in one direction, she lost credibility with the opposing camp. A change of hairdo, a recipe for cookies, an obvious determination to stand by her man and feminists jumped all over her. Yet by offering assistance as a shadow cabinet member, she was accused of coattails-riding nepotism.

She may joke about her six black pantsuits, but that sartorial choice might just as easily have been political suicide. The nervousness about women as boss ladies can often be allayed, the various gods appeased, by the donning of ladylike attire-i.e., skirts rather than pants, that red flag of cross-dressing symbolically announcing a woman’s desire to be both woman and man.

I’m reminded of a scene in Woman of the Year in which Katharine Hepburn’s internationally famous political columnist is sitting on a sofa, her slack-clad legs sprawled apart while, beside her, her fey male assistant (Dan Tobin) is crossing his legs in prim ladylike counterpoint. This visual duet of antagonistic body language captures the way some men feel about Hillary. Ms. Hepburn, a controversial figure in her time who thumbed her nose at convention, was famous in Hollywood then for preferring slacks to skirts. Dawn Powell, in her novel A Time To Be Born , refers to Ms. Hepburn’s “arrogant lack of make-up.” Hepburn’s movies play on the tension between the masculine and feminine sides of her personality, and nowhere more comically, charmingly and excruciatingly than in Woman of the Year , her first film with Spencer Tracy. Hepburn’s Tess Harding-based on the famous war correspondent Dorothy Thompson-speaks several languages, is on a first-name basis with world leaders and swaggers through New York drawing rooms with a sense of entitlement, but she hasn’t a clue about the simpler things of life, like baseball, love and the scrambling of eggs, all of which she learns at the hands of Tracy’s meat-and-potatoes sports reporter.

In real life, Dorothy Thompson was the left’s answer to conservative femme fatale Clare Boothe Luce. But where Luce was seen as a woman who used her femininity to get ahead (a phenomenon her play, The Women, dissects with insider knowledge), Thompson was a more straightforward type. She quaked at the thought of marriage and, according to her biographer Peter Kurth in American Cassandra , was terrified of losing her independence.

“Sometimes I want love … and a home,” Thompson wrote to a friend (in a letter quoted in the book), but “I want so to be free. I know if I marry I’ll never take risks again the same way.

Who can fail to sympathize with this lament, the smart woman terrified of being engulfed by emotion? Yet such weakness is often turned against her. Woman of the Year is almost apoplectically ambivalent towards its brainy but vulnerable heroine. Before degenerating into a mean-spirited attack on the maternally challenged Tess Harding (who, like Hepburn and Thompson at the time, had no children), the movie alternates between awe and amusement at this powerhouse woman. Her femininity is emphasized at one point, denied at another. One of director George Stevens’ most exquisite shots is the camera movement up Hepburn’s sleek, silk-stockinged legs that is Tracy’s first glimpse of her … and one of the few times we’ve ever seen Hepburn’s shapely gams.

It’s no wonder that, at this particular moment in history, we’re seeing a lot of variations of the take-charge woman in guises that, typically of movies, rouse and allay fears simultaneously. In Robert Altman’s Dr. T & The Women (screenplay by Anne Rapp), the dialectic between femme and butch plays out in the sexually segregated world of Dallas. Men carry guns and hunt furry animals; women wear furry animals, skirts and jewels. It’s a world into which Bree, Helen Hunt’s sleek and sporty golf pro, arrives like a visitor from another planet. In the waiting room of Dr. T, the gynecologist played by Richard Gere, you could almost overdose on the clashing perfumes of a clientele that (unlike the women of The Women , who defer to offstage men) really do rule the world of Dallas-but in the old-fashioned way. When Dr. T proposes to love and take care of the happily independent Bree and set her up in the manner to which Dallas dames are accustomed, she cries: “Why would you think I’d want that?”

The other sort of movie dominatrix is the ball-buster babe-the woman who kicks butt but is reassuringly female. In Erin Brockovich , Julia Roberts may play a woman who holds a multibillion-dollar power company hostage, but she’s all delectable cleavage and girlie smile. Charlie’s three Angels may be martial-arts champions, but at the end of the day they giggle and look gorgeous for their Uncle Bosley and invisible puppeteer, Charlie. In the upcoming Miss Congeniality , Sandra Bullock-who, like Ms. Roberts and Cameron Diaz, is old-fashioned ditzy adorable-plays an F.B.I. agent who must pose as a Miss Universe contestant to thwart a terrorist attack.

Clearly, plenty of high-glucose frosting is required to make girl power palatable, and we’re still not comfortable with women who wear pants, even if they’re form-fitting black-leather numbers. Still, we who voted Democrat in the Senatorial election-whoever we are-somehow overcame all those inner and outer obstacles and voted for Hillary. Now let’s see if she can pull it off.