We Americans want it all, don’t we? Food that’s cheap but delicious.
Airports that are safe yet convenient. Presidents who are smart and
still say damned charming things like “misunderestimated.”
But time and again, we find we can’t have it both ways.
Just look at our reaction to the plight of Lisa Nowak, the NASA
astronaut who lost her boys’ club cool last week and attacked a
romantic rival with pepper spray.
While wearing a wig.
And, um, a diaper.
Police are calling it a love triangle: Nowak, a decorated Navy
engineer who flew on the space shuttle Discovery in July, drove 12
hours from Houston to Orlando to confront Air Force Capt. Colleen
Shipman, with whom she was competing for the affections of
astronaut Bill Oefelein. She wore adult diapers so she wouldn’t
have to pull over at rest stops, disguised herself in a wig and
trench coat, followed Shipman to her car and then sprayed her in
the eyes with pepper spray before her victim escaped and got
Police found a BB gun in Nowak’s car, along with a four-inch
folding knife, gleaming steel mallet, latex gloves, four feet of
rubber tubing, garbage bags and $600 cash.
Unless she planned to construct a crude getaway parachute—or a
sophisticated diaper-disposal system—it all looks bad for
Now the 43-year-old mother of three is facing charges of
attempted murder while America blithely lampoons her as a wingnut.
Headlines like “Lust in Space” and “Dark Side of the Loon” topped
the news story. Jay Leno joked about the aerospace engineer being
the worst sort of flight risk and David Letterman offered the “Top
Ten Signs an Astronaut is Trying to Kill You.”
All of which is funny, indeed, and I’m not saying Nowak’s sane.
NASA’s psychological screenings notwithstanding, I’d rather wander
Fresno with Anne Heche’s alien ego than sip Tang with this
mallet-wielding galaxy trotter.
But isn’t it hypocritical of us, as a nation, to mock a woman
like Nowak for letting her heart guide her actions—when we revile
Hillary Clinton for doing just the opposite?
The comparison between Captain Nowak and Senator Clinton may
seem strained—one’s running for President and the other, thanks to
a court-mandated ankle bracelet, isn’t running anywhere. But both
women have attained a rare level of success in grace-under-pressure
careers dominated by men. Nowak is known as “Robochick” for
operating the space shuttle’s robotic arm. As the less-popular half
of “Billary,” Clinton was believed to have undue influence over
And both, now, have seen their professional achievements
undermined by amorous entanglements. But if one of them horrifies
the nation by hunting down the “other woman,” and the other is
labeled “cold-hearted” for sticking with her philandering spouse,
there appears to be a double standard at work:
When successful women have our hearts broken, we’re damned if we
plot murder, and damned if we don’t.
It’s worth noting that, in love triangles, men come unhinged,
too. But no one ever drags their professional life into the
discussion. (If wife murderer Scott Peterson was accused of being
an unfit pesticide salesman, I stand corrected.)
The hypocrisy points to an important question: How do we want
our female leaders — passionate and unpredictable “like a woman,”
or controlled and calculated “like a man”?
Would we, deep down, really prefer that women stay home and stop
meddling in areas that were once so neatly — so masculinely —
defined? Or would we simply rather the nation’s female role models
abstain from the messy business of falling in love, so that we can
forget they’re sexual beings entirely?
Women are multi-faceted. I love that Nowak’s NASA biography
reports her hobbies as skeet shooting and growing African violets.
I love how Clinton admits, in her autobiography, that her husband’s
infidelity left her “furious” and “gulping for air,” but that she
can still somehow manage to not assault Monica Lewinsky in a
Florida parking garage.
Ultimately, a woman’s going to pursue that which makes her
happiest, and no amount of public scorn is going to stop her.
For what it’s worth, though, I’d rather our next President
approached life’s challenges with a poker face than a pocket
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