The Wife Dilemma, Part One

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Here’s one of my biggest pet peeves: women who are written off because they are “only” wives. This especially disturbs me when it is used to dismiss a woman’s expertise or accomplishments because it’s only her husband who is well-known for something. And it really upset me when it was directed at Hillary Clinton.

When Clinton was running for the Democratic nomination in the presidential race of 2008, many people spitefully said that she wouldn’t be where she is today if she hadn’t been married to a President of the United States, as if all she did was stand by his side at ceremonies or pick out his clothes. The ironic thing is that when she did try to take a more active part in her husband’s administration, she was strongly criticized and her efforts were ridiculed.

It’s no wonder that other First Ladies have been careful to pick causes that are considered appropriate for a wife of a President to have. I had high hopes for Michelle Obama; I thought she might take on something like domestic violence or poverty, or even, God forbid, reproductive rights. Instead she settled on childhood obesity, a nice safe cause that won’t rock anyone’s boat. (Although I did read that Sarah Palin criticized her for trying to tell parents what to do with their children; of course she equated that with big government.)

There were times during Bill Clinton’s presidency when I wondered what Hillary Clinton thought she was doing. But that was mainly because there was no precedent for it. At other times I thought, “Why not?” After all, who would be more in tune with what her husband was trying to accomplish than she? And it’s not like she’s a dummy; far from it. She’s an intelligent and accomplished person in her own right.

So is Michelle Obama. And if I sound like I’m saying she has to have her own “outside” job to be considered important, I’m not. On the contrary, I’m saying that we should accord respect to wives no matter what they do in or out of the home and not assume that just because they’re wives they’re incapable of contributing anything important to the world. I would just like to have seen her take on something a little more “earth-shattering” than childhood obesity (and before you jump in, I do realize that it’s a big problem; I just happen to think that getting food to starving children should be a higher priority than taking it away from kids who don’t need it).

But she’s probably responding, at least in part, to people who are ready to pounce on her if she so much as comments on a “touchy” subject. She’s not supposed to have opinions of her own, even if she has the knowledge and experience to back them up. I thought she added a lot to her husband’s campaign but as soon as he was elected, she seemed to have lost her voice.

Eleanor Roosevelt is probably considered the best First Lady this country has ever seen. But even she restricted herself to “feminine” causes like human rights, the status of working women and world peace. The truth is, though, she could probably have taken over for her husband in a heartbeat (and some think she did occasionally). She would have made a wonderful President. Still, she at least received recognition for her own accomplishments. She was never seen as “just” the wife of a President.

We should never underestimate what the woman behind a “great” man is capable of absorbing from being involved in her husband’s world. Wives know a lot more than we give them credit for. If we would just look past the label, we would discover a woman who is just as capable of “running the world” as her husband is.

See my next post for “The Wife Dilemma, Part Two.”

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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