Political spouses play increased role in candidacy, fallout from misconduct

Several stories this week have centered around the role of spouses in political races and scandals. And by spouses, in every case we are looking at the wife of a male politician, although several stories note the discrepancy that would most likely exist if a female candidate’s male spouse was examined in a similar light.

Presidential Candidates

As the primary season for 2012 approaches, several GOP candidates have been thrown, or voluntarily placed themselves, in the spotlight as a contender for the nomination. Roughly half of voters said a candidate’s spouse would have some impact on their vote, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll just before the start of the 2008 presidential primaries. However, some of these spouses have been reluctant to undergo the scrutiny of a campaign.  Most prominent in the discussion is Cheri Daniels, wife of Gov. Mitch Daniels, who was described in Newsweek as hesitant about a potential  campaign due to anxiety of her “personal life getting shredded like a chunk of ripe Parmesan.” The New York Times’ weekly Room for Debate tackled this tension of public vs. private life, with several contributors falling on different points of the spectrum.

Also in the spotlight this week was Callista Gingrich, third wife of declared primary candidate Newt Gingrich. His marital past is being discussed in the Boston Globe and across multiple media outlets as a potential stumbling block to his campaign, especially as he tries to cater to voters who prioritize family values issues. Richard Reeves for the Times’ Room for Debate wrote that “Gingrich’s trio of marriages may prove to be a test as to how far we have come since a single divorce could derail a political career.”

Again, it is noticeable that these types of anxieties, and the news cycles that debate them, are focused on the wives, not husbands, of candidates. Newsweek noted that “the life of a presidential wife is all about contorting herself to satisfy the constant, constantly shifting demands of a nation that still can’t decide what it wants from the role.” Maybe husbands are left out of the debate for the time being because the types of trip ups a candidate’s wife can be seen to cause are just shifted to female candidates themselves.

The primary candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008, faced her own share of gender-based criticism while the marital mistakes of former President Bill Clinton were not widely discussed as a hindrance to her image surrounding family values, although their marital history was fare game during his 1992 campaign for the same office. Politico all but counted female candidates out of the 2012 Republican primary, saying this week they are either “provocative but unelectable and provocative but who may render their husbands unelectable.”

Political Mistakes

Two other political figures this week brought attention to their spouses. The separation of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger from his wife Maria Shriver brought light to his child born to a former employee of the family 10 years ago. During his campaign for governor, Shriver repeatedly defended her husband of 25 years when accusations surfaced of his misconduct and sexual harrassment of women on his movie sets and elsewhere. Tracy Weber, now of ProPublica, described her reporting of Schwarzenegger’s misconduct for the LA Times, saying Shriver “battled back forcefully, contributing in large part to his victory.”

On the other side of the country,  former chief of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn faces charges of attempted rape of a housekeeper in a New York City hotel. His wife, Anne Sinclair, was described in the New York Times as “the driving force for (his) political ambitions.” Like Shriver, Sinclair was a TV journalist who gave up her career to avoid conflict of interest with her husband’s political aspirations.

And while the coverage of Strauss-Kahn case raises several issues around the coverage of rape and depictions of victims of sexual assault, the larger issue comes down to the role these incidents will play out for these men’s political futures, and the portrayal of their wives’ responses.

Both Shriver and Sinclair unfortunately have several examples to choose from. Jenny Sanford, former first lady of South Carolina, made headlines for her refusal to stand by her husband after his affair with an Argentinian woman. When former President Bill Clinton apologized on “60 Minutes” for his actions, Hillary Rodham Clinton sat beside him. Silda Wall Spitzer stood behind her husband as he announced his involvement in a New York prostitution ring, her disdain clearly visible on her face.

Whether the spotlight comes from a campaign or a calamity, it is clear spouses, and particularly wives, are considered a newsworthy part of a politician’s public profile.

This is the Gender Report’s Week in Review, a weekly post that highlights some of the major stories related to gender issues this week. Some of these stories may have already appeared in our News Feed or in the week’s Gender Checks. We’ll at times include a longer analysis of stories as well as bring attention to stories that may have slipped through the cracks of the week’s news cycle.