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8:59 PM Wed, Sept. 19th

Has jail given Martha Stewart humility?

BOSTON – So is Martha Stewart coming out of jail or out of rehab?

From the coverage I can't tell if the domestic diva is leaving Alderson prison or the Betty Ford clinic. Either way, she's coming out clean.

The headlines on the Newsweek cover stories over the years tell a three-act play: "Martha's Mess,' "Cooked,' and now, "Martha's Last Laugh.' The stories chronicling her prison stay – see Martha foraging for dandelion greens, crocheting holiday gifts for her dogs, and teaching yoga – either read like snide parodies or tales of a tough survivor.

Even her own magazine, which had, to put it mildly, lowered her profile, welcomes her home with a salute: "Our Martha, always formidable, always moving forward.' Meanwhile, the ad for hair color on the very next page says, "Thinking Makeover? Start at the Top.'

Martha is leaving prison for her 153-acre estate called Cantitoe Farm with an electronic anklet, a contract for a daytime show and a prime-time spin-off of "The Apprentice.' She's either the most scripted comeback kid since the invention of comeuppance, or a gritty survivor who did the time without the whine. Or maybe both.

Martha Stewart, number 55170-054 at Camp Cupcake, is one of a handful of women in America who need no second name. Oprah, Hillary and Martha. But people universally admire Oprah for an authenticity laced with a "you go girl' mission to help women feel good about themselves. People either love or hate Hillary for her power or politics.

Where Oprah is empathic, Martha is a perfectionist who makes others feel imperfect. Where Hillary polarizes the polity, Martha makes the sisterhood ambivalent.

It's impossible to separate Martha from gender. The world of this brand name is as exclusively female as the West Virginia women's prison.

In many ways, she's part of a long history of the women's auxiliary economy: making a business of homemaking. For the longest time, when women were kept out of the business world, the most ambitious women developed their own home ec. For every 19th-century feminist such as Margaret Fuller, who built herself a house without a kitchen, there were many more like Lydia Pinkham who cooked up a vegetable (and alcohol) compound to cure "women's troubles.'

Today, when women are making their way in corporations, there are mixed – no, Cuisinarted – feelings toward a CEO of Homemaking. Should the women in the corner offices applaud the making of the Omnimedia mogul or rue her message of domestic overkill? Should homemakers praise the woman who values the home skills or resent the woman who makes them feel like they can't pass her homemaking class?

Does the ambivalent woman subscribe to Martha Stewart's Living or chortle at the parody "Is Martha Stuart Living?' Does she guffaw at the magazine's March instruction to vacuum-steam your curtains, recoat your metal lawn furniture and make your own Easter egg? Or does she also secretly lust for the lemon crepes on page 25?

"Many women today,' says Harvard Business School's Rosabeth Moss Kanter, "want to be both their mother and their father.' Even if mom never color-coded napkins and dad never made the Fortune 500, Martha has become a high-profile variation on the theme of having it all if you can do it all.

These same feelings followed her trial and conviction: She was just another rich insider who got caught. She was the victim of a double standard that seemed to let Ken Lay off the hook. She was a poster child for hubris. Her conviction was proof of what Betty Spence, president of the National Association for Female Executives, calls "skirtiny,' the special scrutiny applied to powerful women.

Now the narrative of her rehab hinges on the notion that jail has given Martha the one thing she lacked: humility. My own little ambivalence-sensor can't decide if this "humility' is another way of praising wisdom and humanity or another way to take an uppity woman down a peg or two.

As the icon becomes the ex-con, I'm trading my ambivalence for good wishes. May Martha survive the tacky anklet, overcome the skirtiny and prove that women too get a second, third, fourth, fifth act. Just don't ask me to vacuum-steam my curtains.

E-mail Ellen Goodman at ellengoodman@globe.com

(c) 2005, Washington Post Writers Group