Gosh, I was told that I should not upstage my husband.
Bill Clinton stated in his first 1992 campaign that he and Hillary come together as a package. “Buy one, get one free,” he said. Whether that was progressive for the time is still debated. Today, the wife of a political candidate is still just a smiling, loyal escort: part of a package.
In light of public interest in the role of a political spouse, I wanted to learn more. I turned to feminist studies of political wives, especially those looking at news coverage. It would surprise you how the academic literature has not yet altered the conversation in our Westminster bubble.
I’ve found myself reading until late in the night, which is, as any mother will tell you, the only time any new mom has for herself. Still, I went with reading about the roles of political spouses, instead of catching up on sleep. Why? Because I was able to see how in academic studies, we are seen from a distance, without ideological judgment.
Feminism moved women into the public arena. They have always affected it significantly, though, behind the scenes. In Feminism, the Public and the Private, Joan Landers suggests that ‘women made the public sphere possible by undertaking the provision of care, reproduction and other unpaid (and therefore unrecognised) duties.’
This still happens today. In the year 2019, some still believe that a political spouse, unless she is a wife of a Prime Minister, has to ask for permission to join the public sphere or to talk on her own terms about her personal experiences of public life. A political spouse in public is expected to be a mouthpiece of her husband and further his political agenda.
What Landers referred to as a case from the past is still relevant now, as even when a women gets incorporated into public life, she is still placed in the box of her gender role. If she needs to present, she is expected to speak and act in a certain way, mainly as a fashionista and philanthropist, and to engage in tasks that in no way undermine a masculinity of her political spouse. A woman is a function of her partner whenever they pose as a couple in public.
I first noticed the lenses through which political spouses are viewed when, given the range of my articles to choose from–on mental detoxing, purpose-finding, motherhood–many journalists only wanted to talk about Oh my God! the fashion column. Looks and only looks
I have another title for you from April 2010: Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron
Also in 2010, Carole Cadwalldar commented in The Observer on the appearance of Samantha Cameron and Sara Brown: ‘Samantha Cameron looks good in trousers; Sarah in skirts. Both women confine themselves to exchanging pleasantries while their aides reveal where they bought their outfits’.
Fashion and politics always go hand in hand, but I feel political spouses have more to offer to conversation. We have a unique role. Even in the most recent state visit of the American president to UK, fashion choices were widely publicised, from Dior’s haute couture gown worn by Melania to The Duchess of Cambridge Lover’s Knot tiara.
Political spouse deserves better
In 2005, Hadley Freeman published an article in Guardian entitled ‘The week the first ladies went mad’. Then and there, she observed, being a politician’s wife is “a role that shows up more than any other the quite frankly ridiculous standards to which women in the public eye are held: if they are silent they are dull; if they talk, they are risky loose cannons. If they are successful career women, they are not supportive of their husband; if they are mutely adoring, they are dull and old fashioned.”
When was this, fourteen years ago? It’s 2019 and the lenses that are applied on us are still the same. We, the political spouses have much more complex roles and identities than stereotypical gender framing. We will be subservient to the expectations of masculinity by our husbands’ roles. Yes, we love fashion and charity work but we are also able to offer other aspects of our identities to public conversation. We are more than simplistic narratives.
We must never forget the words of Nixon who said something in 1992 to the New York Times that still rings in the Westminster hallways: “if the wife comes through as being too strong and too intelligent, it makes the husband looks like a wimp”. Ladies, beware of upstaging your husbands. Gosh, we need new lenses.