It's ironic and a clear tribute to the growing political strength of women that the first female Supreme Court nominee should have been appointed by the most anti-equality president in American history.
Now we must wait to see who Judge O'connor really is. If she supports Reagan's position against women's equality under the Constitution, her presence will be more damaging than having no woman at all.
But meanwhile, if you've been reading and watching the same media that most of the country sees, you may be feeling depressed, even embittered, by the masculinist backlash.
Not only is last year's election used to support this theory of a conservative and antiwoman tide. So is anything from the male supermacism of the Moral Majority to men's return to shorter hair, women's to shorter skirts, and the pop cultural rebirth of the '50s.
Obviously, there are big factual flaws in that majority claim. Most eligible Americans chose not to vote at all, and even among that 25 percent who did vote for Reagan, the majority made clear i postelection surveys that they were voting against inflation and the status quo, not for his right-wing positions.
As for pop culture, there is no evidence that men with shorter hair are any less likely to share child care or housework, or that women returning to shorter skirts are more likely to give up legal rights. On the other hand, the '50s revival probably is an escape from current change, just as increased pornography and the sexualization of little girls is certainly a backlash against demands for equality by adult women.
Nonetheless, the majority of men are not reverting to a vision of an ideal man who is some amalgam of Ronald Reagan and John Wayne.
On the contrary, the world of entertainment has produced a media idol who tells us something very different about ourselves. It is no longer even Burt Reynolds, himself a transitional figure who wasn't afraid to campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment in spite of his image as Good Ol'Boy.
In the Peope's Choice Awards -- the only multiple entertainment awards determined directly by the public -- Alan Alda won both top positions for the second year in a row: both Favorite Make Performer on Television, the entertainment form that most Americans see, and Favorite All-Around Make Entertainer in all media.
To assess the shift, think of John Wayne, Bob Hope and other traditionalists who have won these awards in the past.
Now contrast those public images with that of Alan Alda, whose much-acclaimed role in M*A*S*H is antiwar, sensitive, skeptical of authority; who explains on talk shows that his top political priority is the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and who also campaigns for candidates who support women's right to reproductive freedom; who turns down roles in major films biased against women; who limited his own career by leaving California and other movie locations in order to be home in New Jersey each weekend; whose musician/photographer wife and three grown daughters are clearly regarded by him as equals, not ornaments; whose long-running marriage gives him an "anti-masculine" image of constancy and faithfulness; and, perhaps most unusual of all, who refers to himself publicly and often as a feminist.
"Aha," you say, "women voters must have made Alan Alda a national favorite." In fact, he won Favorite Male TV Performer with an overwhelming margin and his supporters were slightly more men than women. For Favorite All-Around Male Entertainer, Alda's supporters were only slightly women.
Even in the limited world of People's Choice Awards, all the news is not good. This year, Clint Eastwood won the award for Favorite Motion Picture Actor for his violent roles in a series of similar westerns -- beating out Burt Reynolds and Robert Redford. Of course, the movie audience is overwhelmingly younger, as well as much smaller, than the TV one.
Florence Skelly, partner in the social research firm of Yankelovick, Skelly, and White, notes that the male 14- to 21-year-old moviegoer is the main support for the current wave of "kill-the-woman" movies; films in which independent women are sadistically murdered. Perhaps that fact, like the higher margin of male votes for Eastwood, underlines the greater insecurity of some young men, and their discomfort with female equals, or with any women at all.
Nonetheless, the ascent of Alan Alda, Make Feminist, to two top spots on the national favorite list should remind us that the backlash is a minority response. There has been a majority change in values, of which many men are a part.
For instance, Daniel Yankelovich cites these areas of basic change among both women and men:
By 1978, fewer than 30 percent of Americans disapproved of a "married woman earning money if she has a husband capable of supporting her." In 1938, the disapproval rate was more than 75 percent. (Even through the 1960s, a majority felt that a wife's work showed that the husband was incapable of providing for his family, and he was therefore not a "real man.")
By 1980, a majority of Americans agreed that "both sexes have responsibility to care for small children." In 1970, agreement had been only about 30 percent.
For the first time, a majority now rejects the double-standard that a woman should be a virgin when she marries, or that it's more excusable for a husband to have affairs.
By 1980, nearly 80 percent of Americans were willing to vote for a woman president. In 1937, only about 30 percent would have agreed.
By the late 1970s, 75 percent of Americans agreed that remaining unmarried or choosing not to have children could be a valid and positive choice. Only one generation earlier, in the late 1950s, 80 percent believed that being unmarried was an unnatural state for a man or a woman, and that those who chose not to have children were selfish and wrong.
Obviously, this support for new life styles and new equality is high in ambivalence, and depends on how much disruption and sacrifice is required of men. In Psychological Effects of Motherhood (Praeger), Dr. Myra Leifer, a behavioral scientist, reports that even men who played a active role in childbirth classes and birth itself were unlikely to share equally after the baby was born.
A survey by Doyle Dane Bernbach, a New York advertising agency, found that less than a third of men like the changes in women's traditional role. Why? Because they have to do more household chores. On the other hand, 78 percent of men whose wives worked outside the home approved, and so did a majority of men whose wives did not.
Why? Because work brought money and, they had to admit, made their partners "more interesting." However reluctat the change might be Doyle Dane Bernback came to the conclusion that it was permanent. Creators of ads were advised that they had better start thinking about men in the supermarket.
Since the male role is supposed to be the superior one, the setter of norms, the desirable standard, its changes may have even more seismic effects than the female role changes that forced and encouraged it.
Underneath the current landscape of backlash, transitional ills, and confusion, there is an earthquake of changed hopes -- and some of them belong to men.