Friday, December 11, 2015

Katharine Hepburn and Angela Merkel: “Woman of the Year”

Back in 1942, Katharine Hepburn starred in a domestic comedy called Woman of the Year. She played a hotshot career woman who kept up her hectic lifestyle even after marriage to fellow journalist Spencer Tracy. In a typically quixotic move, she brought home a Greek war orphan she’d decided to adopt as a humanitarian gesture. Then she felt no qualms about leaving this tiny child to his own devices as she swept off to accept a “Woman of the Year” award for her skill at balancing professionalism and femininity. Naturally, this negligence prompted a romantic crisis with Tracy that required the rest of the film to solve.

This week Angela Merkel was named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” It’s only the fourth time that the familiar “Man of the Year” honor has gone to an individual woman (rather than to a married couple or a symbolic collective of women). The very first, Wallis Simpson, was recognized in 1936 because of her role in prompting the abdication of England’s Edward VIII. So she was famous more as a romantic object than as, in any sense, a leader. The second female honoree was Queen Elizabeth II, at the time she inherited Great Britain’s throne from her father, George VI. The third was Philippine president Corazon Aquino, in 1986. Aquino was, unlike Elizabeth, an actual elected head of state, though her powerbase evolved out of her marriage. She considered herself a housewife until the assassination of her spouse, Benigno Aquino, pushed her into a position of power. All three previous Time honorees were hailed in their cover photos as “Woman of the Year,” a phrase which sounds as though it came from a Hepburn movie, or a beauty pageant.

Angela Merkel, though, is a genuine political powerhouse, a trained scientist-turned-politician whose leadership of Germany has shaped the face of Europe at a time when monetary and refugee crises threaten to topple western civilization. I’m delighted that Time singled her out: among the other finalists were some pretty hideous specimens of humanity. But faced with immigrants flooding into Europe from the war-torn Middle East, she has shown diplomacy, courage, and a warm heart. And, importantly, her rise has had nothing to do with her spouse or her family situation   

For a writing project, I once studied Time’s weekly covers from October 1966 through June 1968. During the span of more than 18 months, only about a half-dozen women appeared on the cover of Time. They included Julia Child (for the Thanksgiving issue in November 1966), Julie Andrews (December 22, 1966), Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave (two sisters nominated for Best Actress Oscars in March 1967), and Aretha Franklin (headlining the Sounds of Soul issue, June 1968). The “Man of the Year” edition that hit newsstands in January 1966 was called “Twenty-Five and Younger.” It was a salute to Baby Boomers, and although a token female was included in the cover sketch, along with a young black and young Asian-American male, the cover was dominated by the image of a short-haired young white male. Certainly of interest to women was the cover story on social implications of The Pill (April 7, 1967). And on September 29, 1967, Time’s  cover was graced by a news photo taken at an interracial wedding, the then-controversial union of Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s daughter to an African-American classmate. The cover hailed them as “Mr. and Mrs. Guy Smith.”

My point is that back then most women on Time’s cover were entertainers or wives. How lovely to hail Angela Merkel for her achievements in the wider world. 

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