Spousal Exceptions: How Has the Role Changed?

Spousal Exceptions: How Has the Role Changed?


With the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, political spouses—which is to say wives—have followed rules that ensured there would be no more Eleanor Roosevelts. They stayed in the background, murmured about their children and the virtues of their spouses, shared their ladylike civic concerns with visiting journalists, trailed around after the candidate and smiled, smiled, smiled. Who remembers anything about Abigail McCarthy? Eleanor McGovern? Joan Mondale?

When their spouses won the presidency, wives amplified their background status in the role of First Lady, a title that made Jacqueline Kennedy flinch. “It sounds like a saddle horse,” she remarked as she contemplated taking it on. Jacqueline Kennedy managed to reinvent the role by turning her interest in art and upper-class female skills to interior decoration and entertaining.

But the next two First Ladies put the system under stress. Pat Nixon just managed to keep her addiction to alcohol under wraps. The outspoken, forthright Betty Ford was more of a problem with her pesky stand on the ERA. Nancy Reagan shored up the role, playing the adoring spouse even as she practiced hard politics under the cover of demurring femininity.

On the campaign trail and in the White House, wives have enacted a hyped-up version of the old legal principle of marital coverture, or unity, with the man being the person into which the wife officially merged—even as she maintained her own standing in personal, familial ways. It was a weird reenactment of Victorian gender relations.

Then there were the Clintons, who hauled the political marriage into the modern age, with all of modern marriage’s embarrassments, problems and screw-ups. As political wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton challenged political coverture from the get-go: her feminazi refusal in Arkansas to change her name to Clinton , her determination once she and Bill got to Washington to amp up the First Lady’s office, her promotion as an unelected spouse to head the health care commission.

It turned out, though, that the Clintons were ushering in a new era of spousal issues—even if their dual ambitions and talents always made their marriage an extreme case. Yes, the Republicans continued to roll out the standard model of political wife—Cindy McCain, Laura Bush, Ann Romney. But they aren’t turning them out like they used to. Elizabeth Dole was a former Cabinet official who hunkered down to serve as supportive spouse when Bob Dole ran in 1996 against Clinton, but she popped back three years later to run for President herself. Janet Huckabee’s strained smiles and barely suppressed boredom as she stood behind her long-winded maundering husband made for painful watching, although she managed to hold to form as the shy, soft-spoken wife. But Huckabee hasn’t exactly played by the old rules. Back in Arkansas, she is known as a good ole girl who likes to shoot and hunt and showed a mean temper when she lost her bid to be Secretary of State. “If it wasn’t for the grace of God, I’d have shot a few people already,” she told the New York Times.

So the spousal dilemma is not only the Democrats’ problem. But the wife-who-says-nothing does seem to be in shorter supply among them. Tipper Gore troubled the principle of marital unity when she went overboard with her crusade against rock and roll lyrics, but her soft hippie persona and lack of political ambition softened her image: what shone forth was wifely devotion edged with a good-timer’s aura. Theresa Heinz Kerry was another story. A wealthy twice-married woman with all the money—a scenario which by definition confounds the old story of female dependency—she could never tamp down her haughty independence before the cameras.

Our remaining Democratic spouses manage the fiction of marital unity in different ways. Michelle Obama brings to the campaign a shrewd mixture of wifeliness and independence, advertising a down-home devotion to husband and family which trumps her hefty income and elegant clothes. She is no stay-at-home mom or Stepford wife. Indeed, if she were, she would not be so appealing to Obama’s faithful. But still, her career seems to always be taking second place to her family. What she talks about incessantly is juggling work, home, and family finances. She is never so passionate as when she is holding forth on the problems of paying for expensive summer camps and piano lessons for the girls.

It’s the other one, the guy, who is the real problem. It’s not that he breaks with marital unity: he is a paragon of the man-behind-the-scenes, working the back roads and VFW halls while Hillary Clinton stays in the limelight. He is an exemplary supportive spouse; it’s just that he is also a person with his own opinions and standing. So while he doesn’t disagree with his wife, and makes sure to stay in the background on the podium with his hands folded in front of him, he is mocked mercilessly for holding down the job and doing it so well.

What is interesting is that the discomfort with the marriage, which for years collected around Hillary, is now raining down on the ex-President. One of them has to be down, and now it is Bill Clinton who is portrayed as the embarrassment. The journalists who are trudging after him on the back roads of the primary states entertain themselves by taking turns dredging up spurious racism charges and seeing if he will take the bait. They pounce on recurrences of “purple-faced finger-wagging,” acting for all the world as if they were paparazzi trying to taunt Britney Spears into a tantrum.

Sexism in this campaign has been a shape-shifter. Hillary Clinton has had a brief respite (although I note the press is piling on again this week mocking her for standing taller than George Stephanopoulos on his talk show set this Sunday). Instead, the discomfort with her candidacy has circled back around to her husband. What’s unobjectionable and admirable in a political wife—taking a back seat to the candidate, humbling yourself to dogsbody work with voters—is seen as demeaning to the former president’s reputation, legacy, standing—even his manhood.

Bill Clinton does his job as a professional politician beautifully, connecting with the voters, bringing in the votes. But you would never know it from the media or from the Obama campaign.

It’s not just political opposition that fuels this state of things. It’s a failure of the American imagination.


Christine Stansell is Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. Random House will publish her history of feminism in the spring of 2009. Homepage photos are all in the public domain.