The Wife Dilemma, Part One

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.”

Interview With Rebecca Traister

Illustration by Sarah Karnasiewicz

Rebecca Traister is a senior editor at who writes about women in media, politics and entertainment from a feminist perspective. Her new book, Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything For American Women, is being released tomorrow as a hardback and an ebook. I plan to get my hands on a copy as soon as possible, for two reasons: 1) I really like the way Traister thinks and writes; and 2) I believe this will be an important book not only for feminists, but for anyone who is interested in American politics.

Below is a video of Traister talking about some of the issues she deals with in the book: also just published Curtis Sittenfeld’s  interview with Traister about the book, which you can read here.

Does Being A Woman Make A Difference?

Nora Ephron
Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron recently said that she is a director, not a woman director. “When you make a movie, there is not the remotest sense on a day to day basis that you are not exactly the same as anyone else who directs a movie.” But Abbie Cornish , who worked with Jane Campion in “Bright Star,” says, “I just notice, with a female director, there’s definitely more of a connection to the emotion and the feeling of a scene, and the physicality. They’re much more intimate on set.”

One director who is shaking up the world of gender differences is Kathryn Bigelow who directed “The Hurt Locker,” an action film with a lot of violence. She seems to prove what Ephron is saying. But Ephron herself has stuck primarily to “female” or “chick” movies like “Sleepless In Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail” and “Julie & Julia.” So what is the real deal here?

There are obviously two schools of thought about this. One asserts that women bring something different to the table just because they’re women. The other school, typically attributed to Second Wave feminists, is that women and men are interchangeable. Ephron obviously holds the latter view.

But is she right? And does what she say hold true for all types of roles? Is a mother interchangeable with a father? A female firefighter with a male firefighter? A female politician with a male politician? A businesswoman with a businessman? An actress with an actor?

Continue reading “Does Being A Woman Make A Difference?”

Beauty Standards As Backlash

Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth in 1991 about “how images of beauty are used against women.” Almost 20 years later, Michelle Goldberg wonders if anything has changed. In her December 22nd article on The American Prospect website, she asks the question: “Are impossible beauty standards a subconscious cultural reaction against women’s growing political power?”

I’ve heard this argument before. In the 1960s, the most iconic female in the world was the supermodel, Twiggy. twiggyHer name described her looks: long, skinny limbs, no breasts to speak of, pixie haircut and large, childlike eyes. She looked like a little girl more than a woman. Her popularity coincided with the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement and feminists saw a conspiracy of sorts in the way the media publicized her looks. To them it seemed that the patriarchy was feeling threatened by these women who were calling for change and trying to liberate women from their “God-given” roles as wives and mothers. And it responded by trying to get women to think of themselves as powerless children.

You have to wonder if something similar is going on today. Only now the stakes are even higher–and consequently so are the standards. With the rise to power of women like Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin plus the last five decades of women’s advancements, it may be that the list of things that women must do to be “real” women has been lengthened on purpose. Nowadays women have to look great in a bikini (the skimpier the better) which means great breasts on an impossibly fit body on which all body hair has been removed. Women are made to feel that if they don’t fit the ideal, they’re of no consequence in the world.

Continue reading “Beauty Standards As Backlash”

Friday Videos: The Generation Gap in Feminism

A little outdated, since the election is over, but this interview with Letty Cottin Pogrebin and her daughter, Abigail Pogrebin, illustrates some of the differences between Second Wave and Third Wave feminists.

A bonus: a short video on why Hilary Clinton doesn’t fit the “New Feminism.”