Ann Romney, left, with Michelle Obama, during the California Governor and First Lady's Conference on Women.
Whether it’s their clothes or their all-American romances, political wives draw attention for everything except their politics. But this isn’t a case of gender stereotyping… it just reveals a larger gender hurdle.
|Ann Romney, left, with Michelle Obama, during the California Governor and First Lady's Conference on Women. ||Photographer: Matt Sayles/AP Photo|
I love fashion, political posturing, and reading way too far into a given event in search of meaning (UT English degree, hey-o). So you’d think ABC’s article about the politics behind Michelle Obama and Ann Romney’s outfit choices would appeal to me three ways.
Instead, it made me sad. It’s 2012: political wives should have opinions and, like Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole, active careers of their own. Laura Bush promotes literacy, and Michelle Obama champions healthy living. Are these intelligent, proactive women only notable for the designers they frequent? Isn’t there any other function their public appearances serve?
But when politicians trot out their wives as proof that they understand 'women’s issues,' they presume that most women will agree with their wives, thinking the same and voting the same, and that the mere presence of a woman on stage is enough to win our support.
The New York Times recently published a feature entitled, “Do We Need to Hear From the Candidate’s Spouse?” Seven contributors contemplated the nature of convention speeches from presidential wives, and I’ve identified three interpretations: the best, the worst, and the reality.
The most charitable view of a political wife’s speech: the party in question wants to connect with women voters. Myra Gutin states that the growing importance of spousal speeches testifies to the growing influence of female voters. When parties grant speech time to presidential wives, they want to be seen as inclusive and approved by women.
This is a double-edged sword. It’s great that parties are investing in female role models for voters; women are all-too-often forced to identify with men simply because there are no women around. It’s not great that these political icons are all playing supporting roles and never starring. When the only women on screen spend all their time praising men and validating the standard definition of the happy family, our role models become oppressively limited.
Shelby Knox takes the argument further by flipping the gender roles: what if we were discussing a political husband praising his candidate wife? We can’t assume that the cookie-cutter speech of a candidate’s husband would be sufficient to convince voters that a female candidate understands “men’s issues”; those issues are varied and complex. But when politicians trot out their wives as proof that they understand “women’s issues,” they presume that most women will agree with their wives, thinking the same and voting the same, and that the mere presence of a woman on stage is enough to win our support.
So that interpretation is unflattering enough… but it can get worse. These speeches praise a candidate’s traditionalism and respectability, requiring the wife (to coin a phrase) to Stepfordize herself. In a recent CNN article, Catherine Allgor asserts that political wives parade traditional family roles to appeal to the mass market of voters. She notes the stock words that appear in many spouses’ speeches: character, honor, decent, steadfast, and (of course) values. Political wives take no risks and instead affirm standard definitions of a loving and successful family.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more notable than in the longtime mainstay of spousal speeches: the tale of how the couple first met. “Love at first sight across a crowded room” and “a respectable man must win his woman’s heart” speaks to down-home, white-picket-fence Americanism through traditional, male-dominant romantic roles. No tales of unconventional romance or wild youthful adventures here.
The sad part (and here’s the third interpretation, reality) is that most families, politicians included, don’t match these traditional roles, but the fantasy is promoted anyway. Connie Schultz, a senator’s wife, holds many opinions that would rile her husband’s constituency and is accustomed, as are all political wives, to being ignored or oversimplified in the media. No speech will ever paint a negative picture of a candidate, and no spouse will ever step even a millimeter from the party line. Voters prefer simple messages, so political wives will always stick to traditional topics.
So will political husbands, when they finally appear. The supporting-cast role is a reality of political spouses’ lives; the reason it looks like a stereotype on women is that women are always spouses, never candidates. The real gender hurdle is getting more women into positions of political authority, media spotlight, and presidential candidacy.
When America sees husbands praising their wives at party conventions, we’ll be able to tell more accurately if these vacuous, restrictive speech expectations are a disparate burden on women or just a feature of political families.