They came from far away

Changing Differences

July 18, 1997

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. So says the self-help manual. In these terms American foreign policy to date is strictly Martian. That is to say, it was conceived, presented, brokered, debated, advised, consented, implemented, circumvented, and repudiated by Martians. With one or two conspicuous but powerless exceptions, their intergalactic neighbours were not permitted to poke their powdered noses in. Venusians were mouthpieces, ghettoised in the United Nations (Jeane Kirkpatrick) or marginalised in the barbicans and tollgates of the American empire (April Glaspie). On one occasion in the 1930s when the activist Dorothy Detzer, secretary of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, was waiting to see the peace panjandrum Lord Cecil, she overheard a member of his entourage say: "Sir, I should warn you; for she is not like most of the peace ladies who come to see you. She is under 70 years of age; has bought a hat since 1900; but talks like a Bolshevik." Certain attitudes are remarkably resistant to change.

Changing Differences is an investigation of this phenomenon, in cultural-historical perspective. The book is a mixture of potted biographies - not only Eleanor Roosevelt, "the first lady of the world", but also the likes of Senator Margaret Chase Smith, astonishingly, the only one of her kind for most of the period 1949-73, and representative Bella Abzug, the stentorian "social feminist", who had a voice loud enough to boil the fat off a taxi-driver's neck, according to that masculine model of decorum Norman Mailer - and pertinent issues such as feminised spaces, gender gaps, and sexual smears. The biographies are sympathetically drawn and the issues sure-footedly treated. The summing-up on Eleanor Roosevelt is typical: "She widened the human rights campaign to include matters of concern to women; she attached to it the first serious attempt at world government, the UN; and she made human rights a major issue in the foreign policy of her own country. Try as he or she may, no future US president is likely to be able to ignore it." No future FBI director either. J. Edgar Hoover - he who liked nothing better than cross-dressing and tumbling with Clyde Tolson - had the hypocritical gall to keep information on Mrs Roosevelt in his "sex deviate" file.

The book also includes, as a kind of international control, an extended argument on "the myth of the Iron Lady", globally, taking Margaret Thatcher as the archetype. This yields some interesting conclusions. The female, it seems, is not deadlier than the male, in action or predisposition. Even Thatcher, She Who Must Be Obeyed, is found to be less gung-ho than virago, practising restraint in foreign policy throughout her tenure, the Falklands included. This is not an analysis likely to appeal to many local readers, as the author himself remarks. It prompts an ironic thought. Underneath the belligerent carapace, did there lurk an incontinent appeaser (vide China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Serbia . . . and the US)?

Changing Differences was first published in 1995. It remains highly relevant. For the time being, however, the differences have changed a little more, at least in the affluent latitudes. There are, for example, record numbers of women in the British Parliament and the French Cabinet. For the first time in American history there is a female secretary of state - a native, not of Venus, but of another faraway place of which we once knew little, the former Czechoslovakia - Madeleine Albright. This is progress. But it is still gross under-representation. And it is still a struggle, sometimes a vicious one. As the distinguished cultural commentator Geri Spice recently remarked, "I know about the Suffragettes. They fought. It wasn't that long ago. They died to get a vote. The women's vote. You remember that and you think, ****ing hell."

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

Changing Differences: Women and the Shaping of American Foreign Policy, 1917-1994

Author - Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones
ISBN - 0 8135 2449 0
Publisher - Rutgers University Press
Price - £17.95
Pages - 5

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