She's a Real...

"BITCHES" are in the air. From Leona Helmsley ("guilty bitch") to Margaret Thatcher ("conservative bitch") to Imelda Marcos ("well-shod bitch"), the word is being thrown around as an all-encompassing description of why these women are less-than-desireable role models.

The public lynch mob against Leona Helmsley, for example has gone beyond the bounds of normal public discourse. When a respected national news magazine showed Helmsley on its cover next to the caption "Rhymes with Rich" one could rest assured that they didn't mean "witch."

"Bitch" is rude, mean and mysogynist. It descibes women who are unsympathetic, uncaring and selfish. It describes women who are, in our eyes, less than women.

I don't mean to dismiss the sincerity of the traditional notion of women as the more sympathetic and compassionate gender. Nevertheless, I am aware of what traditionally happens to women when they defy this stereotype. Revisionist historians look to the Salem witch trials as a backlash against women who might have been seen as overly demanding, cold or just plain aggressive. Seventeenth century judges used a "w" instead of a "b," and the flogging commenced.

NOW the word is being reiterated with a vengence. When prominent women are branded with this insidious word, we cannot be sure whether "bitchiness" is an image they cultivate, or merely a word we use to describe behavior that doesn't satisfy traditional notions of femininity.

Yet, this name-calling can backfire, as these women--all too aware of what our society thinks of them--internalize the label and throw "bitch" back in our faces.

Margaret Thatcher, after weeks of controversy over her proposed poll tax, argued that people would not have objected so strongly if a man had been so politically bold.

Imelda Marcos says she had no idea that her late husband Ferdinand was looting the Philipine treasury. It is just the American public's visceral dislike of her abrasiveness, she complains, that makes everyone assume she is guilty.

And Leona Helmsley's appeals lawyer, Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz, got it right when he said. "There's no way she'd get four years in jail if she were a 70-year old man...[or] a quiet, wifely, subdued woman who stayed in the background."

These arguments use the defendants' unsavory reputations as evidence of innocence, not culpability. Because the world hates bitchy women, they say, these women have been unfairly criticized and unfairly tired; as Dershowitz points out, there is no legal penalty for being a bitch.

That's the irony of bitchiness. The sloppy news editing and locker-room talk that dubbed these women "bitches" was unjustified, but that doesn't make Leona Helmsley innocent. Just as "bitch" should never be used as a character assassination, it should not be used as a character vindication.

And yet they've got a potent weapon on their side; until we stop using "bitch" as a legitimate form of criticism Margaret, Imelda and Leona might just pull one over on us.