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The Strange Lives of Political Wives

Long hours, no credit, no pay, lots of criticism. Can you think of a worse job?

by
Melissa Clouthier

Bio

May 31, 2009 - 12:27 am
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Political wives. Can you think of a worse job? Married to type A personalities with more than a little bit of a narcissistic streak, these women — often educated and accomplished in their own right — must present a subservient demeanor and a sunny picture of their spouses or risk their spouses’ success. In addition, they often play a big part in their husbands’ careers by campaigning or crafting strategy. It is a rare politician whose wife operates outside the inner political circle.

Hillary Clinton famously said, “I’m not going to have some reporters pawing through our papers. We are the president.” She was dubbed the “co-president.” While her husband presided, socialized medicine failed under her unelected but powerful watch. A formidable woman, Ms. Clinton became a New York senator and is now the secretary of state. She ran largely on the experience she gleaned as the president’s wife.

But Hillary Clinton is not the only notable political wife. Dolley Madison bravely rescued priceless artwork from the White House as the British troops advanced. Eleanor Roosevelt was a first lady activist for the poor and campaigned for equal rights. Betty Ford revealed her alcoholism and helped a whole generation deal with addiction. And now, Michelle Obama is known for her fashion sense, her toned biceps, and her White House garden.

Many political wives aren’t just known for their contributions to the political sphere. Many endured having their private lives made public. Hillary Clinton isn’t only known for her politics and ambition. She is also known as the woman who stood by her husband’s side despite his infidelity and abuse of power. A staunch feminist, she demonized the women who were victims of her husband’s advances and infamously decried “the vast right-wing conspiracy.”

Other political women continue to stand by their wayward men. Most recently and notably, Elizabeth Edwards, a lawyer like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, publicly faced her husband’s straying:

Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, writes in a new memoir that news of her husband’s affair made her vomit.

“I cried and screamed, I went to the bathroom and threw up,” Edwards, 59, who has terminal cancer, writes in Resilience.

She said she wanted her husband to drop out of the race to protect the family from media scrutiny, but stood by his side anyway.

Many political wives endure such shame. James “I’m gay” McGreevey’s wife was dragged into sexual allegations once her husband’s sexual orientation was made public. And there is poor Ms. Eliot Spitzer, who stood by while her husband admitted to hiring hookers:

Spitzer revealed that his wife stood by him at the crucial time, as she could understand what he was going through.

“When you’re in the foxhole with somebody, and there are incoming mortars, that breeds a certain closeness because nobody else can appreciate what you’re going through,” Spitzer added.

His statement and Hillary Clinton’s statement that she knew her husband was going to “always be interesting” lead one to believe that politics is a team effort and certain trade-offs and deals are made between spouses. It is such a commitment of time, energy, and resources — how can a political life not be a joint ambition?

I had the opportunity to be the first to interview Meg Wasinger, wife of Rob Wasinger, Republican primary contender for the open Kansas congressional seat. A mother of nine whose ages range from 8 months to 14 years, she finished her degree while nursing her babies and homeschooling the older children — and while her husband was Senator Sam Brownback’s chief of staff. The Wasingers recently moved back to Kansas where the whole family is helping her husband campaign.

Ms. Wasinger comes from a high-achieving family of women. Her sister, a dentist and mother of eight, would take breaks from seeing patients to nurse her babies. Another sister is a doctor and mother of four who teaches at Harvard Medical School. Their own mother was a nurse who stayed home to raise her daughters.

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