In Curtis Sittenfield’s novel “American Wife,” Laura Bush is re-imagined as Alice, a sympathetic and fairly liberal librarian, traumatized by accidentally causing the death of her high school crush in a car accident, suffering through a secret abortion and later swept off her feet by her cowboy politician husband. Throughout her loyal marriage to this political monster, Alice quietly holds true to her own views while publicly standing by her man — eventually breaking free in a rather tepid climax, to say that she thinks its time to end an unpopular war.
The novel enthralled me in many ways, but its final section, which took place during the presidency, just couldn’t penetrate my own political stances. How could someone with this woman’s sensibilities and convictions, trauma or none, shut herself up and quietly support such a man? Alice’s interesting narrative voice seemed to die once her husband inflicted atrocious policy on his own people and the world, and maybe that was Sittenfield’s ultimate point, but the novel fell flat to me from this moment forward. Alice lost my sympathy, so raw and sore was my anger at the entire Bush clan — fictionalized or real.
This fascinating character lingers in my mind as progressive women nationwide mourn the death of former First Lady Betty Ford, who, in her own way, was one of our own. She was one of ours despite her fealty to her unremarkable Republican husband, who is remembered primarily for pardoning Nixon and telling New York, essentially, to “drop dead.”
He may have been dull, but his wife was a different sort altogether — a vividly flawed human being, a fierce advocate for feminism and gender equality — including the ERA — and an outspoken proponent of her own beliefs, unpopular though they might have been. Eventually, she had to tone it down in public for the sake of her husband’s political career, ushering in the era of the meek First Lady (Hillary Clinton, obviously, being the glaring exception to this, and she has taken more of a pillorying than almost any other political spouse in history, although she tenaciously fought her way through it).
As Carol Joffee writes on the website RH Reality Check:
What is not debatable is that Betty Ford’s tenure as First Lady was the last time in American politics that someone in that role could inspire bi-partisan admiration—even while expressing her own political views. American politics has become so polarized, and the culture wars so fierce, that First Ladies can only be broadly liked if they suppress their own views on controversial matters. Betty Ford’s passing reminds us of what has been lost in our political culture.
The culture wars have indeed seeped into our consciousness brought about the age of the meekest spouse competition. At Double X, Jessica Grose bolsters this view by noting that Michele Obama has gotten attacked merely for choosing to gently nudge American youth into healthier eating and exercise.
The age of the proudly feminist First Lady seems dead. But what about the proudly anti-feminist First Man? Enter Marcus Bachmann, husband of GOP contender Michele, potential “first dude” and, apparently (through his clinic), a practitioner of creepy, unethical “ex-gay” therapy. The couple’s old-school model for patriarchal marriage seems ripe to become an issue in the campaign. But will it?
Here’s where I’m fascinated to see the media and public narrative around a spouse play out: Will Mr. Bachmann — whose views are controversial to say the least and abhorrent to many allies of the LGBTQ community — be subject to the same scrutiny that potential First Ladies face merely for not being “wifely” enough? Will his presence cast a shadow over his wife’s campaign? Or will it be simply taken as shoring up his wife’s extremist right-wing version of “family values”? The media occasionally has a double standard, subjecting those women who deviate from their prescribed social roles as hostess-in-chief to a glaring and unflattering spotlight all their own.
I hope two things change when it comes to political spouses: first, that First Ladies are allowed, like Betty Ford initially was, to be themselves and to be proudly political without any nasty public and press reaction, and second, that all potential political spouses with dubious professional practices are given a close look, whoever they are, and whatever kind of ideological street cred they appear to lend their significant others.