No-one is “just” a wife

08Jun08

On the Times website this week, Sarah Vine advances the theory that in order to become a successful politician, one needs a wife.

Not in so many words, of course.

But she might as well. The subheading of her article reads:

You can tell a lot about a politician by which of the two types of wife he chooses

There’s nothing odd about that. If you believe all politicians are straight married men, who select their wives by ticking one of two boxes.

Clearly, no successful politician could ever be unmarried. Or a gay man. Or female. Hillary Clinton’s recent success in putting up a very strong fight for the Democratic presidential nomination was clearly an aberration (she was certainly supported in her bid by her husband. Are men not as supportive as women, one asks?) As, presumably, Margaret Thatcher’s time as British Prime Minister, which spanned more than a decade. Though Angela Eagle, Labour MP for Wallasey, might, in Vine’s view, be more successful. Though she is currently unmarried, she has the distinction of being the only openly lesbian MP in the current government.

It is certainly true that women are under-represented at governmental level in most countries. (Gays and lesbians are even more so). But articles like this are symptomatic of the prevailing stereotype. “Yes, women and gay people can be elected politicians,” it says, “but the ones who really matter are still straight married men.”

If you’re interested, Vine’s “two types of wife” are typified by Carla Bruni Sarkozy and Michelle Obama. Obama represents the women who marry their husbands before they are successful, and stand by them despite their advancement being “exhausting and, at times, inconvenient.” Bruni, in contrast, represents the women who marry their husbands when they are already successful. Bruni, apparently, “finds the power of her husband’s position as erotic as the man himself.”

Bruni, an Italian heiress, married the French President earlier this year. Before her marriage, she was fairly well-known model, and later a singer and songwriter. She is in fact still a singer, with a third album due to be released this year. I’m no music critic, so I can’t tell you if it’s any good.

Obama met her husband when she mentored him at the law firm they both worked at, and they married in 1992. She has also worked as, amongst other positions, a lawyer in the public sector in Chicago and for the University of Chicago Hospitals, a post she still holds.

I mention these in order to demonstrate that both women are more than just their husband’s wives. Bruni was already well-known before she married, and Obama was already in possession of a successful career in her own right before her husband’s political successes.

But from Vine’s article, you would be forgiven for thinking that these women were nothing more than their wedding rings. Bruni is described as the real-life equivalent of the eponymous character of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene“, a song about a woman who is accused of trying to steal the singer’s husband. Although Bruni is Nicolas Sarkozy’s third wife, it doesn’t look like she pulled a Jolene – his previous wife, Cécilia Ciganer-Albéniz, left him in May 2005, over two years before he was seen with Bruni on holiday, sparking rumours of their relationship. Still, that doesn’t stop Vine comparing them in her article. Even the title “Leaders need a Dolly, not a Carla” reinforces this point.

But in the very next paragraph, the presence of a ‘Jolene’ is described not in terms of an aggressive woman trying to seduce a man, but as a trophy for the successful man – a woman:

whose beauty flatters his ego and confirms his power; a woman who is flirtatious, fun, happy to fit around his hectic, tiring schedule. Easy, available, photogenic.

This, it seems, is the first type of politician’s wife.

The second kind of wife is that, apparently, typified by Michelle Obama. This type of woman, apparently, is:

the person who was there before any of this began; the person who knows that your favourite food is lemon meringue pie and that you really like polishing your shoes by way of relaxation… someone who does not have a vested interest in keeping you in power come hell, full-scale inner-city riot or high water.

Yes, these are in some sense admirable qualities for the partner of a nation’s leader to have. But the assumption Vine makes in her article goes deeper than this. It’s the assumption that these are the only qualities necessary or desirable for such a partner to have. Vine paints a picture of a woman who:

nags [her husband] because it’s his turn to put the kids to bed and he’s addressing a roomful of donors; or who’s in a bait because he had to miss his son’s sports day to host a delegation

Because of course, if she’s not careful, she’ll become just an inconvenience, bothering her busy and powerful husband with trivialities like childcare. And who wants to listen to “women’s work” when they’ve got more important things to worry about? If Vine’s hypothetical wife isn’t careful, she’ll be replaced by a new wife of type number one. That’s how politicians work.

Even when she specifies Obama, it is only to suggest that her concerns will take a back seat to her husband’s work, should he be elected President in November. Not, she is at pains to point out, on issues of kitchen design or chefs (in case that was what you were wondering.) No, it’s the issues of holiday plans and dinner parties, and how her organisation of such things will be affected by her husband’s new job.

Never mind that Michelle Obama is (as we have seen above) a successful career woman, who may well choose to return to full-time employment (she reduced her working hours when their children were born, and again to help with her husband’s campaign, but I imagine neither decision is unreversible.) Should she not return to her previous job, she may follow other Presidential spouses such as Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt in using her position to promote issues important to them. I think it can be safely assumed that she will not just be concerned with childcare and holiday plans, and if I were her, I would be rather offended by the notion that I might not have more interests.

In drawing this distinction between two types of women, Vine intimates that ‘wife type two’, the wife who was there before her husband became successful, is preferable for a leader. And if I were asked to choose between those two types, in general, I would probably agree. But that doesn’t make her assumptions – that these are the only two types of wife for politicians to have, and that politicians are all straight men who “choose” their wives – any less flawed.

What about happy partnerships that crumble when one partner becomes successful? Or relationships where one partner rides on the back of their spouse’s success to promote their own agenda? How about relationships that are not, actually, based on finding power attractive? Or where one partner is, for example, a journalist for a major newspaper while the other is a journalist-turned-member of the Shadow Cabinet, as in the case of Vine herself and her husband, MP Michael Gove. Or any other relationship one could care to name. People – even women married to politicians – do not fit neatly into two (or any other finite number, frankly) little boxes.

Vine’s closing statement,

There are many ways to judge a politician; and one is by the quality of person they climb into bed with.

is, on the surface, convincing. But in most cases, the only person who should be allowed to judge the “quality” of someone’s partner is that someone. Yes, it is possible to tell a lot about a person by the nature of their personal relationships, including that with their partner or spouse. But until he or she starts affecting the ability of their partner to do their job, it really shouldn’t be anyone else’s business. This article, by first pigeonholing politicians as straight married men, and then reducing their wives to nothing more than an accessory for their husbands, showcases the stereotypes that still prevail. In this day and age, those stereotypes should be being challenged, not reinforced.

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One Response to “No-one is “just” a wife”

  1. 1 J2 & Cobra

    Good article! You address the issue from a perspective that I had not considered before, especially the distinction between Carla and Michelle.


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