Joan Smith: How responsible is the wife?

'The lesson of recent history is that public opinion is not noticeably kind towards wives of men who fall foul of the law'
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At first sight, it is hard to imagine two more dissimilar women than Mary Archer and Mirajana Markovic; one is a Cambridge don, the other the widely detested wife of an indicted war criminal. Yet in the next few months, both women will be going through the same unpleasant ritual, bracing themselves to visit their husbands in prison.

Technically, Ms Markovic's husband is not actually in jail. The deposed Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, is awaiting trial in the United Nations war crimes tribunal detention centre in the Netherlands, where Ms Markovic visited him last week. Her arrival prompted international media interest, from the moment her flight touched down at Schipol airport in Amsterdam.

It is a fair bet that Lady Archer's initial visits to Belmarsh prison in south London, where her husband Jeffrey is being assessed at the beginning of his four-year prison sentence, will produce even more intense speculation in the British press. We will hear what Lady Archer wore, just as reporters commented on Ms Markovic's outfit – her usual sombre black – last week. But the real question in everyone's mind will be what the couples find to talk about in the new and coldly impersonal circumstances they now have to adjust to.

Will there be recriminations? What did the wives know, and what should they have done about it? Both women appear, to date, to be standing by their men. In the Victorian period, no one would have expected any less. It was not only the law that declared husband and wife to be, in effect, the same person; there was an assumption that the husband was the dominant partner, his wife's duty to support him extending even to episodes of the most shaming public disgrace.

These days, as we can see from the intense interest currently being shown towards every aspect of Mary Archer's behaviour, the lines are not so clearly drawn. Hillary Clinton made a similar discovery when she went on American television in January 1998, just after her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky became public knowledge, and accused his detractors of being part of a "vast, right-wing conspiracy" to discredit his presidency.

The time when Mrs Clinton's loyalty had seemed admirable was long past. Back in 1992, during her husband's first presidential campaign, she was forced to apologise to Tammy Wynette after a television interview in which she declared she was not "standing by her man" like the country and western singer. But that is exactly what she appeared to be doing and observers asked, as they were to go on doing throughout Bill Clinton's time in the White House, why his wife kept on defending him as the allegations about his reckless behaviour towards women piled up.

Similar questions are now being asked about Mary Archer – perhaps more so, given that Mrs Clinton's husband has never actually been convicted of a criminal offence. The question mark placed by the trial judge over Lady Archer's evidence relating to a disputed diary has prompted a great deal of speculation, as has the allegation that she has offered to sell her story to a newspaper for a reputed £250,000.

Shouldn't she be more remorseful? Or is it unfair to suggest that she should do penance on behalf of a husband who has been locked up, away from the public gaze, for at least the next couple of years? After all, she has not been convicted of anything, and finding herself the wife of a perjurer, especially one who has been so publicly disgraced, is a heavy enough burden for any woman to bear.

The lesson of late 20th-century history is that public opinion is not noticeably kind towards the wives of men who fall foul of the law. Ms Markovic's husband has yet to be convicted, but plenty of voices have been raised to suggest that she was a political force in her own right and should be with him in the dock; Elena Ceaucescu, wife of the Romanian dictator, was as loathed as her husband and murdered alongside him. Both cases are highly political marriages in which there was clearly a match of ideology and ambition as well as the more personal attributes that usually bring men and women together.

Yet even Sonia Sutcliffe, a woman with no public profile or position, found herself the target of all kinds of speculation after her husband was convicted of killing 13 women, and the attempted murder of seven more, in the 1981 Yorkshire Ripper trial. Detectives and journalists speculated that, if Mrs Sutcliffe really didn't know what her husband was up to – and there is no evidence that she did – then perhaps she was unwittingly the cause of it. ("I think when Sutcliffe attacked his 20 victims, he was attacking his wife 20 times in his mind," said one senior policeman.)

While all these cases are very different, involving disgraced dictators, fraudsters and serial killers, the questions they raise in the public mind are not. And that is because they challenge our understanding of the meaning of marriage, and intimate relationships between men and women, in a world that has been redrawn by feminism. The women's movement challenged not just the institution but the balance of power within it; feminists demanded, quite rightly, that husbands and wives be seen as separate people, demanding, inter alia, an end to the process by which wives were expected to declare their income on their husbands' tax returns.

The reform was highly symbolic. Fifty years ago, it was probably reasonable to assume that a wife really did defer to her husband in money matters, and that even the spouse of a convicted fraudster might be entirely ignorant of the true state of their finances. These days, it seems fair to ask whether women, having fought for the right to be treated as adults within marriage, should be able to deny knowledge or responsibility for their husbands' misdemeanours by repeating the old mantra, "I didn't know".

Mrs Clinton certainly knew enough about her husband's affairs in 1992 to employ a private detective to visit some of his ex-lovers and ask for affidavits denying the relationships. Yet cold logic, which dictates that she should have known better than to credit his denials of an affair with Ms Lewinsky, fails to take into account a well-documented tendency in human nature. When love is involved, people don't want to believe the truth, even when it is staring them in the face.

"I cannot do anything on my own without him," Ms Markovic recently told a Croatian magazine, describing Mr Milosevic as both "cute" and "likeable". Revealing a surprising degree of helplessness, this formidable political operator confessed: "He has always been around in my life and now I have to do everything." Maybe this admission is tactical but like Hillary Clinton, whose loyalty to her husband is so hard for outsiders to comprehend, Mirajana Markovic has been married for a very long time.

So have the Archers. Friends explain their enduring marriage by saying that, although they are very different people, Jeffrey and Mary need each other. And it may be that these relationships, and the conflicts of loyalties they throw up, say something unpalatable about the nature of lifelong monogamy. Even now, when its form and obligations have been much discussed, marriage still seems to encourage a type of mutual dependence. What these cautionary tales suggest is that, in some cases, it may also blunt both partners' moral sense.