Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Political Wives

When I read the obituaries and articles posted on Elizabeth Edwards I noticed the odd standards to which she was held. She was both a private person and a public person, even though her public personality had very little to do with her own legal career. No, she was a public wife. A politician's wife.

Political wives get a complex and often nasty media treatment. They are taken to task for anything they say themselves, for any public roles they play, but also for how traditional they are as wives and as mothers (if applicable).

They stand in for their husbands evil deeds, more often than not, and they get blamed for those. Thus, both Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards have been accused of not reacting to their respective husbands' infidelity, presumably for political gain. Barbara Bush has been more reviled in various places than George Herbert Bush ever was. Nancy Reagan has been seen as the evil spirit behind Ronald Reagan and so on and so on.

Can political wives avoid this treatment? I don't think so, though a complete eradication of any personality helps a little. But a political wife always remains a Public Wife, someone the media can paint with whatever subconscious hatred sells the best.

Politicians' whole families face some of the same anger. But the assaults on the wives are harder, more cruel and more primal. They often have the odor of misogyny, of anger towards a woman who is seen as a failed wife or, paradoxically, as a failed politician, even when she is not herself in political life. Or, of course, not a failed wife.

Her child-rearing methods will be criticized. Her clothes will be criticized. Her sexuality and her sexual appeal will be assessed. She lives in a permanent courthouse, sitting on the bench for the accused, and she will never be declared not guilty.

Elizabeth Edwards got her share of all of this, even though she managed it better than most. Michelle Obama gets her share of all this, too, despite her clear attempts to remain non-controversial and explicitly domestic.

Now contrast this to the treatment of political husbands. How much is Todd Palin discussed in the media? How often do we read assessments of his looks, his prowess or his fathering skills?