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Martha Stewart Plays the Chivalry Card
July 21, 2004
by Carey Roberts

In the wee hours of April 15, 1912, the "unsinkable" SS Titanic settled into its final resting spot in the depths of the North Atlantic. The nascent cause of gender equality was dealt a blow on that wintry night. Among its 425 female passengers, 74% were rescued. But among the 1,667 men, only 338 - that's a paltry 20% -- survived this nautical disaster.

First Officer Charles Lightoller was later called to testify before Congress. One Senator inquired why women had been favored over men, even while many of the lifeboats bobbed half-empty in the icy waters. Lightoller's response: "The rule of human nature."

I don't know whether chivalry is based more on human nature or cultural conditioning. But there is no doubt that chivalry is as deeply-rooted in men as is the maternal instinct in women. Even though feminists will rebuke a man who holds a door for a lady to pass, chivalry is still alive and well in our society.

Take the case of Martha Stewart.

Acting on an insider tip, Stewart sold all 3,928 shares of her ImClone stock in 2001. A few days later, the stock took a nosedive. Stewart's pre-emptive move saved her the tidy sum of $51,000.

During the subsequent probe, Stewart made the mistake of lying to the federal investigators. The homemaking maven was charged on four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Every day Martha Stewart emerged from the courtroom, surrounded by her white knights in shining armor (ahem, lawyers). No matter how badly the case was going, she was always beautifully coifed, with a scarf serving as her fashion accessory. The Martha Stewart case, involving an attractive woman with a comely smile and a vaguely helpless demeanor, was more than the men in the media could resist.

Over the course of the trial, I read countless editorials about the case. All of them asserted Ms. Stewart's innocence - she was being singled out, lying to a federal agent was no big deal, poor Martha didn't know any better, and so on.

And all of the columns were written by men, none of them who had spent a day in law school. The articles called to mind the chivalrous noblemen of yore who steadfastly defended the virtue of their womenfolk.

But the jury of four men and eight women saw things differently. On March 5, claiming a victory for the little guys, the jury found Stewart guilty on all four counts.

Afterwards, Stewart's lawyers requested leniency - a term of probation and community service working with poor women. The obvious sexism of that offer apparently didn't disturb anyone.

Last Friday Judge Miriam Goldman sentenced Stewart to five months behind bars. In announcing the sentence, Goldman noted, "I believe that you have suffered, and will continue to suffer, enough." Kinda makes your heart melt.

Media coverage of Goldman's sentence reveals how chivalry can bias the news. On December 27, 2001, Stewart had received a message from her stockbroker warning that "ImClone is going to start trading downward." Stewart later stole into her assistant's computer and sanitized the message to read, "Peter Bacanovic re: ImClone." Jurors later said that incident was the defining moment in the trial.

But this past weekend, the media didn't even mention that critical event. Indeed, they glossed over the details about Stewart's well-documented efforts to obstruct justice.

The lead story in the liberal New York Times quoted one supporter, Daniel Stone, who said, "If she serves any time at all, it's going to be a real pity." The NYT article didn't mention the fact that the American public does not like white-collar criminals being sent home scot-free.

Studies have repeatedly found that when men and women commit the identical crime, women are less likely to be arrested, charged, convicted, and incarcerated. Legal experts say that Stewart was extremely lucky in receiving only a judicial slap on the wrist, the minimum allowable under federal sentencing guidelines.

Was it luck? Or was it the chivalry of the countless reporters, editors, and columnists who rallied to Martha's defense?

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