Martha Pays the Price For Being a Woman

To the satisfaction of many, the bitch got hers. That’s how many people reacted to the news that Martha has been indicted for a trashy bunch of unimpressive federal charges. Martha is a bitch.

Even in her made-for-TV movie, they have scenes of Martha being richly bitchy to others, especially underlings. Stories abound of Martha acting badly, Martha screaming and carrying on like a self-centered, selfish person. I have never met Martha, never laid eyes on her, but there are so many such tales that it’s hard to believe they all arise out of envy or the malice of the competition. Let’s stipulate that Martha is a pluperfect horror of some kind.

That said, the suspicion remains that her being a famously successful businesswoman has had something to do with how the government has come down on her. Her successes, her gender and her reputation certainly have something to do with the satisfaction-nay, the ill-concealed joy-with which the news of her indictment was received.

So, the bitch got hers. Yet when the boy C.E.O.’s get indicted, you may hear exclamations of satisfaction, but you don’t hear references to their gender. There is no special joy that it was a guy who got his. With Martha, you can’t escape the feeling that the happy celebration of her downfall has something to do with her being a woman.

It’s like the slut thing. A man is promiscuous, a womanizer, a skirt chaser, even a satyr-but even in the Year of Our Lord 2003, a woman who is known to have the same recreational patterns is a slut, with all the special meaning that word conveys. Martha, with her famous bad mouth and celebrated temper, isn’t a lady, but a misbehaving woman, a discredit to her sex, a hoyden. So let’s join hands and dance as we sing, “Martha got hers and we’re glad of it!”

But wait. How much of a standard deviation from the C.E.O. norm is her bad mouth and violent temper? Not that they all act that way, but there was Jack Welch at General Electric, who was celebrated, respected and aped for a temper as vile as a man can have. When a stream of obscenities comes out of the male C.E.O.’s mouth, it’s called motivating the executives who work under him. When a male C.E.O. sadistically dresses down a subordinate in public, reducing the underling to tears in front of his colleagues, it’s called leadership. When a woman does it, the judgment on her is that she’s extremely un-babe-like. Male C.E.O. behavior is the conduct that Martha has been accused of, but in her it’s unbecoming, unwomanly, somehow-in some not quite spoken way-unsuitable.

Martha has been the equal of the male C.E.O.’s in piggeries and swinishness. She played at the man’s level, and she won. She also played against the old-time American conviction that women were better than men and therefore should be held to a higher standard. In the old western movies, the men would start out in some barren collection of tents in the wilderness, living like animals, dirty, stupid and violent. Then the stagecoach would arrive carrying women settlers, and the next image on the screen would be men bathing in corrugated iron tubs, building a school and a church, and saying “Howdy!” to people instead of drilling ‘em between the eyes with their Colt .45′s. Women, the carriers of learning, religion and art, were more civilized than men.

When Martha drove her stagecoach into the C.E.O. world, she didn’t civilize them, she joined them. You can’t really blame her for that. Is one woman supposed to tame a bunch of men, many of whom turn out to be not only iron-fisted autocrats, but crooks? It was some feat that Martha could hold her own in this hard company of disreputable men, but she did. She played them even-steven.

The hope was that women would be able to do better than beat men at their own games. The hope was that women might succeed in raising men up to a higher standard, but that hasn’t happened. Maybe it will never come to pass. If too many generations go by with the women being just as good as the men, but not better, the women may ultimately forget who and what they were and what they stood for. On that day, we’ll all be in a hell of a fix.

In a way, Martha did try to elevate us. By all accounts, she grew up in a family where the father role was played by a drunken lout, but she made her big bucks teaching people how to make it better, how to make your home the happy, lovely, dignified, carefully tended place that hers evidently wasn’t. You might say that she used her business to jack up the standards, to make home a place where the men might not act like brutes.

Until she was gob-smacked by the feds, Martha was the prototypical hero (or heroine) in a period which venerates aggressive, independent, ruthless, famously selfish business successes, especially those who start their own companies. That was Martha-a woman, mind you, who made herself into a billionaire, building up her own business, making deals, going public and turning herself into such a brand name (or “branding herself,” as they say these days) that there isn’t a sixpack-drinking, fat-gutted, sports-loving, jeans-wearing, male son of a bitch who doesn’t know the woman’s name.

Martha Stewart is so big in America that her last name doesn’t appear in this piece until now, and I’m sure everyone reading it knew from word one about whom it was written. Big as she may be, it wasn’t big enough to save her from being destroyed by the federal government. It has occurred to more than one person in recent days that the government went after her because she is a celebrity. A former prosecutor was quoted in the papers the other day saying, anent gutting Martha: “The deterrent effect is immeasurable …. Even if the government puts a thousand hours into building this case against Martha Stewart, the risk-reward ratio is enormously positive and constitutes a prudent allocation of government resources.”

Spoken like a lawyer. There is no risk ratio because the only one at risk is Martha, and she’s already well past risk and into damnation and ruin. Then there’s the “deterrent effect.” O.K., but whom are we deterring from doing what? The case against Martha is based on the allegation that she didn’t tell federal officials the truth. Well, she wasn’t under oath, so it boils down to one of those she-said, he-said arguments. This isn’t Enron or Tyco or WorldCom here. This is nothing.

Even if it were something, how many thousands out of the hundreds of millions in the United States would be in a position in which they could ever contemplate doing what Martha is supposed to have done? When was the last time you resisted committing some kind of arcane stock fraud? No, there is no deterrence here, but there is discipline, there is the instilling of fear of the government, of intimidation by the authorities.

If they can do that to Martha, think what they can do to you. They can squash you like a little white louse between thumb and index finger. In a matter of hours, your job, your life savings and your house are gone.

But why would they do that to Martha? She’s a tried-and-true free-market party-liner who never got lippy and never sassed back. Why her? Why you, for that matter? You never got out of line, either, but who better to administer public discipline on than somebody who never did anything? So random, such innocent bad luck-so much the more frightening. Just tell me what it is and I’ll stop doing it. Just tell me.

Squashed like a louse. They call it the “deterrent effect.” There must be another word for it.