On last week’s episode of The Good Wife (CBS), Alicia Florrick – the show’s main character and wife of now-presidential candidate Peter Florrick – was confronted with the traditional gender role expectations that continue to shape presidential politics; despite her own exceptional credentials and accomplishments, her primary role on the campaign trail was to present herself as the supportive spouse and stereotypical wife and mother. Being “the good wife” in presidential campaigns has long been expected of male candidates’ spouses; whether “softening” their husbands’ personas, standing alongside them, and/or reflecting their masculinity, candidates’ wives are often expected to demonstrate their capacity to fit the idealized role of first lady. A recent post on a conservative news site added another credential necessary of candidate’s wives: “unapologetically pro-life views” that, they argue, will inevitably influence the policies of their presidential candidate husbands.
Carly Fiorina raised another credential for being a good wife in the GOP debate on Thursday, making a point to say that she, unlike the other woman in the race (Clinton), enjoys spending time with her husband. Whatever her intention, Fiorina’s comment evidences how traditional gender role expectations associated with being a wife confront all women involved the race – candidates and spouses alike. As I wrote after the debate, implicit in Fiorina’s jibe was a frequently revived attack on Clinton as a flawed spouse or, even more, an atypical woman. Fiorina’s comment appeared not to resonate with many, and instead yielded significant backlash from those who, like the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, called it “outrageously sexist.” CNN host Alisyn Camerota confronted Fiorina directly about the double standard inherent in her attack: “You decided to talk about Hillary Clinton’s marriage. You didn’t day that Donald Trump should be at home spending time with his wife.” In her post-debate interviews about the comment, it seemed as if Fiorina was trying to build upon attacks that Hillary Clinton, as GOP debate moderator Maria Bartiromo phrased it, is an “enabler of sexual misconduct” by staying with her husband after he was accused of infidelity and sexual assault. In fact, Fiorina sought to contrast herself with Clinton on this specific point, telling news outlets that she would have left her husband if he behaved like Bill Clinton. In her attempt to, as Amanda Marcotte writes, win the “Best Wife Ever” contest, Fiorina re-entrenches traditional expectations of marriage and power that have long held women back from the professional success and opportunities from which she has benefitted.
While Fiorina’s comments represented dated ideals, the backlash to them may demonstrate a shift in spousal expectations on the campaign trail. That shift is becoming more apparent, if still incomplete, in the coverage of this year’s candidate spouses. For example, Katie Zezima’s Washington Post profile of Heidi Cruz explains: “Most visibly, she is the traditional campaign spouse. But she is also her husband’s chief fundraiser, a surrogate who hopscotches across the country asking voters, one meet-and-greet at a time, for their support — and in private meetings imploring political and faith leaders for theirs.” Zezima highlights Cruz’s professional credentials at Goldman Sachs, a background shared by Chris Christie’s wife Mary Pat; Fortune characterized both women as offering a “Wives of Wall Street” model for campaigning as a presidential candidate’s spouse. While both profiles fall into some stereotypical traps, they also recognize the changing role of candidate’s spouses as reflective of the modern gender dynamics, and progress, in both public and private spheres.
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