Yesterday, Jeb Bush announced his candidacy for president of the United States. But it isn’t only Jeb who will be under the electoral microscope for the next 18 months. Profiles of his wife have already surfaced, with the latest coming in this month’s Atlantic, where Hannah Rosin describes Columba Bush’s aversion to the spotlight and calls her the “anti-Clare Underwood” as a far less extroverted and involved political spouse. Columba Bush is not the only political spouse earning attention in the 2016 race. Kelley Paul has earned much attention already, The Washington Post profiled Frank Fiorina in May, and Bill Clinton’s role and influence have been repeatedly debated in print and on TV.
But why do we pay so much attention to political spouses, especially in presidential contests? What do these un-elected individuals tell us about the candidates on the ballot? And – even more – what do these spouses cue about gender and the presidential partnership?
It’s often noted that presidential elections are a family affair. The nation not only elects a president to the White House, but also a “first family” that has long been expected to fit a “traditional” American ideal in image, structure, and relational styles. Masculine husband, feminine wife, and children — often with a pet to boot! — have long fit the traditional, heterosexual role expectations of American family. More specifically, scholar Georgia Duerst-Lahti describes the presidency as a gendered space in which masculine norms and images of strength, power, and singular leadership are expected as the ideal. However, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell adds importantly that the US presidency is really a two-person career, where an “appropriately feminine first lady is needed to compliment her chief executive husband and serve as a testament to his masculinity.” In this presidential partnership, the female spouse acts primarily as a reflection of her husband’s sexuality and, in turn, dominance. His family further affirms his role as masculine protector and hero, a standard to which we have often held our commanders-in-chief.
These gender role expectations of the first family and presidential partnership are problematic for candidates who stand outside the norm, and even those who near the norm often feel the constraint imposed by stereotypical expectations. Women candidates most directly disrupt gender stereotypes as they seek to swap the image of reflective spouse for independent executive. Male spouses do little to bolster their wives’ masculine credentials – those still expected of the office — and instead walk a fine line in helping to fit the familial ideal while ceding the spotlight, and gender power, to their female partners. Candidates without spouses are similarly challenged to fit ideal expectations, leaving observers to question overtly the incompleteness of the presidential partnership and covertly wonder about the candidate’s sexuality. Finally, even male candidates with traditional family types can be constrained by the entrenched expectations of the first family; they, too, are expected to perform gender in a way that meets masculine expectations even when their familial reality may evidence greater flexibility in their fatherly or husbandly roles.
So what does this mean for 2016? Of course, the presidential partnership given most attention thus far is one that has dominated American politics for over two decades. The Clintons have been frequently characterized as co-candidates and Hillary Clinton has been harshly criticized for disrupting gender expectations of female deference in previous campaigns for her husband. In 2012, I wrote about the themes used to cover Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, including the presumed dominance of Bill and his assumed discomfort in a supporting role. In analyzing the 2016 race, many analyses have questioned whether the former president will be able to take on a subdued role or whether he will help to re-create the ideal image and role of a presidential spouse. Most analyses, however, exemplify the confusion with which we wonder about a potential “first gentleman,” and that confusion demonstrates the clear disjuncture between gender role expectations and the presidential partnership we’ve been accustomed to thus far. Coverage of Bill Clinton is not alone in evoking this confusion in 2016, as a recent profile of Frank Fiorina made clear. In the piece, Fiorina himself appears unsure of how to behave and unclear about what is expected of a man in a role so historically associated with women and femininity. But Clinton and Fiorina may have some models to follow, as Krissah Thompson details in The Washington Post, if they look to a few of the first gentleman who have navigated an executive spousal role at the state level.
Spouses, both men and women, have the capacity to disrupt the gendered images and expectations of the presidential partnership, but it will take a difference in behavior, and coverage and interpretation of that behavior, to truly alter the masculine expectations of the presidency. This year’s female spouses have been relatively quiet to date, but are expected to play traditional support roles. Some – like Columba Bush – have been scrutinized already for being too far behind the scenes, while others – like Kelley Paul – have been placed into the expected role of “humanizing” their male partner (coverage of Kelley Paul has also described her influence on Rand Paul’s wardrobe). Whether secretive or “secret weapons,” the expectations of these women are much clearer than those of the men who share similar roles in women’s presidential campaigns.
Lastly, Lindsey Graham – as a single man – has offered another chance to challenge the expectations of an ideal first family. However, it did not take long for coverage to focus on the abnormality of having no spouse with whom to campaign or to evoke gendered questions or comments about Graham or his candidacy. Graham’s Senate colleague, Mark Kirk, even joked about him being a “bro with no ho,” relying on the most crude gendered tropes of male-female partnerships. Kirk’s comment, however, came on the heels of Graham’s own attempt to downplay his “atypical” situation, telling the Daily Mail that he would have a “rotating first lady” if elected to office. GQ has even suggested nine potential FLOTUS candidates, including pop stars Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj; domestic guru Martha Stewart; and “every contestant of The Bachelor,” reinforcing the femininity of the role and undermining the seriousness of the position. While Graham is unlikely to have to choose among these potential aspirants for the presidential spousal role, these comments and discussions demonstrate the “othering” of candidates who do not fit the presidential ideal and attempts to “normalize” the candidate by identifying a stereotypically feminine partner instead of re-envisioning the ideal candidate image and familial expectations.
In 2012, I wrote a chapter on the media treatment of presidential candidates’ spouses in the 2008 Democratic primary. I made the case that there was evidence of both tradition and transgression in spousal behavior and media analysis. As we get to know the 2016 field, will we see evidence of shifting expectations for women and men? Or, instead, will we focus on male spouses trying to fit into traditionally female roles, or female spouses fitting the feminine “helpmate” ideals? We don’t yet know, but what we do know is that the potential presidential partnerships – not the candidates themselves – will be under scrutiny from media and voters alike through November 2016. Whether we re-entrench or re-imagine expectations of those partnership roles is at least partly up to us.