March 14th, 2008
09:46 AM ET

The Politician's wife: Caught in the crosshairs


Faye Wattleton, President, Center for the Advancement of Women

While political sex scandals are nothing new, the media's scrutiny of their impact on politicians' spouses is a relatively new topic of conversation.

As far back as we know, men in power have engaged in extra-marital affairs.  It wasn't until then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, perhaps due to her elevated profile on universal health care reform, endured the public humiliation of standing beside her husband, before a phalanx of cameras on live national television, did the public begin unrestrained discussion and debate about the behavior of the victims, especially that of the politician's wife. "Stepford Wife" was a label often uttered by the disdainful; others defended her stoicism.

Perhaps the cacophony signals a change in the perception of the women behind the men in powerful roles, reflecting the changing world for women in all spheres of life – from the traditionally polite and smiling wife ("for better or for worse") to a powerful partner with her own individual image. From someone who is attractive in photo opportunities to advisor and power behind policy decisions, sometimes publicly, presumably more often, privately.

The women in these roles are now likely to be highly educated and holding professional positions in their own right. Even so, probably none can know the demands of living under the public spotlight and being thrust into a higher standard of accountability, until they have actually lived it.

With women running for higher office and holding powerful leadership positions in corporate America, the pressure not to play dutiful wife will come from some quarters.  Some will see themselves in similar circumstances and will identify with the women who embodied the old-fashion virtues of sucking it up to keep the family together, seeing their husbands' philandering as "not a reason to walk away from long-term marriage," as Cindy Adams stated on her New York Post column yesterday. According to the Center for the Advancement of Women's research on women and religion, 44 percent of women support the idea that divorce should be more difficult to obtain, further illustrating women's stance on this issue.

– Faye Wattleton, 360° Contributor/President of the Center for the Advancement of Women

Filed under: Eliot Spitzer • Faye Wattleton
soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. IWomenvoice

    The writer, and media at large, is asking a wrong question. They assumed that these politicians' wive are victims rather than partners in these scandels.

    Everyone knows now that Spitzer's wife is one of a few that urged him NOT to resign. What is more important to her, his power or her family??

    In the case of Clinton, Hillary knew Bill's PATTERN of abusing power with women better than anyone else. Yet, she stood by him. What is more important to her? The power or her marrital relation to him?

    Never underestimate how the greed toward power corrupts women as it does to men.

    March 15, 2008 at 12:52 pm |
  2. sherry

    Faye Wattleton’s article points out the changing role of wives in our country and I am for the modernization of that role, as it helps women attain dignity and respect they were often forced to sacrifice in the past. While no one knows the true reasons behind Mrs. Sptzer’s choice, every individual deserves the right to deal with such an issue in private and the media should stop scrutinizing her and focus on the guilty governor instead.

    While circumstances are different for each woman, when this happened to the Clintons I was angry with Hillary for putting up with Bill, but I also admired her dignity and stoicism when the camera was in her face. Airing one’s dirty laundry in public is boorish and base (perfect fodder for today’s media) so we should be careful not to speculate about the decisions wives make in the privacy of their own homes. I for one hope that IF Hillary doesn’t win the presidency she says “Bye-bye” to Bill- the man who couldn’t give her husbandly or political support when she needed it most.

    March 14, 2008 at 5:17 pm |
  3. Jennifer, Sarasota

    Is it necessary for us to feel anything about these women? The only time I care about what they do is in relation to their role in the public sector. My disgust with Spitzer is not that he slept with a prostitute and cheated on his wife but that he spent his life very vocally condemming such things. These women can make whatever choices they like without worry of my judgement provided that they are not hypocrites trying to present a view that is contrary to the one they live.

    March 14, 2008 at 5:13 pm |
  4. b

    I think we give these women too little credit. Many women and men stay with cheating spouses for various reasons. Many, many stay because they choose what "they" believe is the best choice. Does it really matter if we all agree – after all they live and sleep(or not) with this folks.

    March 14, 2008 at 2:57 pm |
  5. Melissa

    I enjoy your show and your book, but I feel compelled to add something to your "Suggestion Box." Please start covering IMPORTANT current events. Yes, the primaries are important and the Spitzer scandal is hypocrisy at its finest, but we don't need coverage of the daily tit-for-tat among the Democratic candidates or a psychoanalysis of what Spitzer's wife must be going through. Save the in-depth analyses for things that matter - the resignation of Admiral Fallon, the war in Iraq, gas prices, the mortgage crisis, planning for recession, Bear Stearns getting emergency funding, unemployment rates, the deficit, Bush's lowering of the smog standards, the protests in Tibet, etc. All of the cable news programs are doing the same thing and so it's unfair that I'm singling 360 out. I just thought my concerns had the best chance of making an impact with you. If consumers drive content, I wanted you to know that this consumer appreciates your journalistic style but wants REAL news.

    March 14, 2008 at 2:37 pm |
  6. Stephen

    The families of politicians are put in the spotlight because the media puts them there. It is easy and cheap for a news organization to do a dirt story and milk it for a few days. The only thing that it costs is the integrity of the news organization and the life of the victim. Apparently this is easy currency to spend these days. It is pretty sad that organizations that used to investigate and interview to find the news now take their lead from the Enquirer.
    The real story about Governor Spitzer was the domestic spying, which in the end was used for political purposes. The story is about the government nosing around in citizen's lives under the guise of looking for terrorists. Instead the media is acting like he was the only man in America that cheated on his wife with a call girl. I would guess that this is not the case.

    March 14, 2008 at 2:31 pm |
  7. wendy York Co. S.C

    Why are we picking on the wife? We do this all the time. It is Mr. Spitzer who broke the law and the trust that was given to him both by his family and state. She is one of many victims but we will treat her with contempt for standing with him now and worse if she does not divorce him. Why? Would we like to have to go through it and have the media and others critique what we do and tell us what we should do. Has she not gone through enough.

    March 14, 2008 at 2:29 pm |
  8. James Branham

    It seems as though a governor has been reduced to someone not fit to govern and a prositute has been made into a super star. Well maybe the governor deserves his fate if that is the best judgement he can use, but what about the prostitute. How many thousands of dollars has she hid from the IRS. I would think that a responsible news organization would dig into this as well. She is not someone to be admired by other young women and leave with the impression that this is one way to obtain sucess.

    March 14, 2008 at 1:56 pm |
  9. bond

    If you stand there and look meek, weak, and helpless while your spouse reads an "I'm sorry I got caught speech" after he embarasses you in front of the nation, don't look for sympathy. I have zero for you. You have self-esteem issues that send a terrible message to your kids. The strong "real" women I know are far from powerless.

    March 14, 2008 at 1:05 pm |
  10. Kathie

    Stand beside him till they cart him off to jail .. Then in the words of
    Ivana Trump " don't get even , get everything"

    March 14, 2008 at 1:01 pm |
  11. Pamina

    It is amazing to me that we as a society look for a way to protect men who make bad choices and try to blame the women in the situation. For a long time, our country blamed rape victims, still do in some cases. And now, women who's husbands have affairs, who is scrutinized? The Wife!!! Unbelievable!

    March 14, 2008 at 12:54 pm |
  12. Jolene

    Faye: I also agree that divorce should be more difficult to obtain and there should be more scrutiny around the reasons that justify divorcing. However, the issue of spouse infidelity is one that has been around for a long time. Although the 44% stat has some merit, I believe it would not be as high if that question were to be associated with husbands being married to intelligent, powerful, professional women but having extramarital affairs with girls half their age. Just another reason to stay single!

    Jolene, St. Joseph, MI

    March 14, 2008 at 12:34 pm |
  13. Charnie

    These sex scandals are not new at all. It happens that someone gave a book written by Cathy O'Brien The Trance-Formation of America who claims that she was a sex slave for the white house. Although I'm not American, I feel sick to my stomach and disgusted after I read the first 3 chapters. I fall these things really happened the way she describe it in the book, this country is really corrupted or should I say the government, long ago. I even see the Clintons name there. Compare to what I read so far, what the Governor did was nothing (if the author of book is telling the truth), because it's hard to believe such things happened for real.

    March 14, 2008 at 11:27 am |
  14. Lorie Ann, Buellton, California

    Perhaps the public has to learn to mind their own business once in awhile. Do we really all help women such as Mrs Spitzer feel supported by calling her and others like her a Stepford wife? No we don't. Politician's wives are people first and their choices for their own lives, should be theirs alone.

    March 14, 2008 at 10:57 am |
  15. Gretchen

    Thank you for blogging again! I love your posts. You made me think about how much less sympathy I have for strong women and men than I have for people I perceive as less capable of fending for themselves. I'm not sure if that is a good sign or a bad sign, but it is a change in my point of view brought about by the changing social dynamics. Don't wait so long before your next post!

    March 14, 2008 at 10:47 am |
  16. Cindy

    I hear all of these so called experts talking all of this stuff but has anyone stopped to think that maybe Spitzer's wife knew about it and that is why she stood on stage with him and tried to get him not to resign. I mean some couples have their little arrangements that they both live with. Who are we to say that the Spitzers didn't.

    I mean Silda is an extremely smart woman. You can't tell me that she didn't notice the large amount of money gone from their account that they say he spent on the prostitute throughout this time. So maybe she knew and was OK with it. People do strange things in relationships when they want to keep them. Especially after being married a long time.

    I'm not saying that what he did was right but if she is OK with it then that's their prerogative I guess. Who are we to judge.

    Cynthia, Covington, Ga.

    March 14, 2008 at 10:24 am |
  17. Annie Kate

    Your statistic that 44 percent of women want divorce to be more difficult – does that leave the other 56 percent wanting divorce to remain accessible or be made easier?

    Political wives should not be expected to stand with their husbands as they confess their sins. The husband certainly didn't require her presence when he was cheating; he shouldn't expect the wife to act as a buffer when he admits all. He made his choice; his wife should be able to make her choice as to whether she appears with him at his public confession.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    March 14, 2008 at 10:22 am |
  18. Maria

    I think this sudden focus on making an issue of politician's wives experience is really most irrelevant. People are viewing this on a very superficial level and assuming the wives are not aware of or in control of the situations they find themselves in. Please give these women some credit. Surely, it is, most of the time, anyway, no secret to them that they are having marital problems. There is either obvious distress in the marriage, or a more simmering sense that something is abrew, but on some level, women always know when there is something wrong. And if they willfully choose to ignore the symptoms odf a troubled relationship, that is also their need and choice. These are also women who have agreed, if not chosen, to lead their lives under public scrutiny and taking the its with the glory is part of the deal. If the media and the publlic has any real concern or compassion for any of these wives, they would extend to them the same courtesy of privacy and refrainment from judgement that they would want if they were to find themselves in a similar situation. Speculation about personal matters and motives which no one could possibly be in a position to know is absurd and pointless. Commenting on affairs of other people's hearts is not news for public consumption. Leave these ladies alone and worry about your own husbands!

    March 14, 2008 at 10:09 am |
  19. Dave

    What is going on at CNN? First you try to outFox Fox by shifting to the right and adding (shrill) voices like Glenn Beck to your lineup. Now, you are doing a pretty good impression of a VH1 expose by exploring the Elliot Spitzer scandal from every posibble angle, the more voyeuristic the better. 360 has devoted an inordinate amount of time to this story in a week when the economy continues its freefall and the violence in Iraq has escalated sharply (inlcuding the deaths of eight U.S. soldiers). CNN's slide into the gutter is a clear reflection of what happens when ratings are prioritized over serious journalism.

    March 14, 2008 at 10:08 am |