February 22, 2006
The Age

Why do women hate Maureen Dowd?

It’s one of the great ironies of Australian feminism. Despite 40 years of maturation, we still play the man – and not the ball. We can’t help ourselves. Well before we consider the content and ruminate on the argument a woman might pose, we sharpen our squint, asking: “But who is she?”

In the case of The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, the collective answer seems to be: she’s a powerful, sexy little fox, who’s smart, witty, made it to the top and has got it all sewn up. She’s a bitch.

The Australian media’s response to Dowd’s new book, Are Men Necessary?, has been a fascinating study in our own thinly disguised insecurities as women – and Antipodean women at that. Our distaste for any debate that pokes and challenges our increasingly feeble feminist foundations, and our inability to laugh at a witty line and appreciate a sassy joke is – well, embarrassing.

Dowd, a 54-year-old Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and The New York Times’ only female columnist, is about to experience first-hand our naive lack of humour and tortured desire for layers of complexity. She arrives in Australia on Friday for a whirlwind one-week book tour.

Stuck on reviewing the minx in the marketing material, Catherine Keenan in Saturday’s Herald couldn’t get past “the fishnet-and-stiletto publicity shots”, and Dowd’s “breathless interviews”. Keenan can imagine the author “purring the lines”.

She says “it is the most flirtatious book I’ve ever read”.

On this page, not long ago, Winnie Salamon was at pains to point out that as Australian women “we need discussion that is meaningful”. Dowd’s playful suggestion that all men will be infertile in 125,000 years, and possibly extinct in 10 million years, was not complex enough for Salamon, whose hunger for serious empirical data found this undignified romp through the “Y chromosome” all a bit “kitschy and futuristic”.

Dowd’s razor-sharp depiction of women who choose to parade their breasts instead of their brains (in order to enjoy the greater rewards), and who have ditched old-fashioned aspirations of gender equality for slut-culture supremacy, is just too much of an insult to delicate Australian feminist sensibilities. So what do we do?

Rather than poke at the provocation, unearthing its fundamental truth, we go for the girl. And we aim where we know it hurts most.

She’s “single and childless”, informs Salamon. She may be “smart, stylish, sexy and successful”, but so too are plenty of other women, Salamon argues, who “have a partner and children and are fulfilled”.

“It’s easy to be bitchy about Dowd,” writes Jennifer Sinclair in The Age. Why? Well, Dowd has what these women don’t. She has “good looks, a great job, moves in powerful circles and has had some pretty interesting dates in her time” (Dowd has “dated” some of America’s rich and powerful).

All the more reason why reviewers such as Sinclair reckon we should ask the tough questions, such as “Why can’t she just be happy with what she has? Isn’t she just a little bit greedy? How much does she want?” And then the inevitable feminist put-down, “Is she just really bitter?”

No doubt Dowd has heard much of this before. But perhaps nothing could be quite as pathetic in its moral grandstanding as the heart-stopper in The Australian, by Caroline Overington – an otherwise thoughtful journalist – who posed this question when playing with the title of Dowd’s book: “But what about women who aren’t married and don’t have children? Couldn’t we get rid of them?”

She goes on to poke fun at Dowd for living alone and being free to “pop out for a martini” every night. Then she turns a collective anger at women who are childless into a full-blown sneer: “Spending time with (a) child is vastly more satisfying – and takes more skill – than spending the longest night in the coolest bar in New York.”

And she can’t help but part with some patronising advice to Dowd (and those other childless singles): “I know it’s not polite to say this, but it’s difficult for women who are not mothers to understand the depth of commitment required to get married, have babies and then raise a child. It’s not like having a boyfriend.”

It’s depressing and indeed tiring to be subjected to this inane and frankly idiotic kind of criticism. I know. I’ve copped it myself.

The frustration of flagging real and valid concerns – albeit dressed up with wit, anecdote, or thinly-shrouded autobiography – yet having the underlying message ignored for a cheap shot at the messenger instead, defies progress. It defies any real chance women might have of engaging in the feminist discourse we so desperately need in this country.

The champagne bottles may have popped over the abortion pill RU486 win in Parliament last week, but the women of Australia need a lot more gas, and a lot more grunt, to move the lead in our boots. The courage shown by the “Fab 4” senators, their generosity of spirit and desire for a truly pluralistic Australia that embraces the full range of women’s roles and experiences, should serve to put us all in a more generous state of mind.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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