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The ‘political wife’ of old has vanished

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listens to President Barack Obama and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speak during the NATO Summit at McCormick Place in Chicago, May 20, 2012.


France's new President, François Hollande, is not married to his partner, the glamorous political journalist Valérie Trierweiler, and no one seems to care. Germany's President, Joachim Gauck, is not married to his partner, the journalist Daniela Schadt, and no one seems to care. Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, is not married to his partner, the domesticity guru Sandra Lee, and no one seems to care. The list could easily be continued.

Is the adoring political spouse – so much a part of the political landscape that she has her own iconography, from knit suits to the dreamy upward gaze at her man – receding into the past?

It was only 20 years ago, during Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, that his wife Hillary's career – that is, the fact that she had one of her own – sparked wild and vituperative debate. There was even her absurd "bake-off" against Barbara Bush, in which she had to produce her own cookie recipe to appease a lingering cultural demand for domesticity in the role.

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Those days now seem like another age. For starters, recent events have made it highly unappealing to any woman who has any alternative to assuming it. In recent years, the role of the traditional spouse has been, most visibly, to stand by (or not) while some excruciatingly embarrassing foible or betrayal by one's husband is publicly aired in mortifying detail.

What woman would want to risk that role – one that has become increasingly likely in an age when surveillance by political opponents has become increasingly sophisticated and extensive? Smart women may be unwilling to marry high-profile political men these days, owing to the tremendous potential downside. Other domestic arrangements might be easier than taking the matrimonial plunge, with its prospect of thankless exposure in the event of scandal.

Another reason for the not-necessarily-married and not-necessarily-full-time political spouse has to do with simple generational change: The role of adoring wife that Nancy Reagan perfected is a time-consuming profession. Most men who are ready to seize the reins of national power will be with women of their own generation, who are likely to have plenty to do on their own trajectory. We do have Ms. Clinton and Cherie Blair to thank for clearing away the cultural detritus.

In a way, voters may find this evolution reassuring. When male politicians had to be equipped with smart but underemployed full-time adoring wives, there was reason to be uneasy about the unseen influence of an unelected adviser hovering around cabinet meetings. But when a leader's partner is a full-time journalist – or a full-time lifestyle guru – one's fears of a power behind the throne diminish. The woman, presumably, is too busy to meddle excessively in affairs of state.

Finally, what smart contemporary woman wants to take on a one-step-down role? It is taxing to spend all of one's time making one's husband look good, and it is demeaning to have to feign a lack of interest in issues that doubtless were part of the attraction to one another in the first place.

If the traditional political wife is vanishing, it is voters' own fault: We set it up to be thankless and infantilizing. Why should we expect leaders' partners to perform, on a massive public stage, social roles that we no longer accept in our own lives? The adoring political wife was always more caricature than character. Now, fortunately, she can finally retire.

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