The leader's wife is always in the wrong

Mark Lawson
Monday 14 June 1993 23:02

THIS looks, on the surface, like a good week for women in politics. Kim Campbell has become Canada's first female prime minister, while Tansu Ciller is Turkey's prime minister-elect. While there is no particular correlation between the gender of leaders and the sexual equality of a nation - India and Israel, which were run by women long before it became popular, were no dens of feminism - it is inevitably tempting to see the results in Canada and Turkey as a move towards political maturity.

Before they get too optimistic, however, Ms Campbell and Ms Ciller would do well to consider the recent history of two other high-ranking political women.

Last week, Hillary Clinton felt it necessary to go on television in the US denying that she was the Lady Macbeth of Pennsylvania Avenue. The charge against her was that she had become too involved with her husband's presidency; that she allegedly exercised a veto over appointments to his administration; in short, that she functioned as an unelected co-president: The Womanchurian Candidate.

Oddly enough, almost simultaneously, allowing for transatlantic time differences, Downing Street was eagerly spreading the news that Norma Major had co-hosted a reception for exporters at No 10. The announcement was calculated to counter accusations that she had become, to continue the Shakespearean imagery, the Ophelia of Downing Street: a self-engrossed and listless woman oblivious to the political difficulties of the dithering male she loved.

The charge against her was that she did not show enough interest in her husband's premiership; that he therefore had no supportive sounding board before making such difficult decisions as reshuffles. 'The powers that be,' reported the London Evening Standard, 'are said to be almost desperate for Norma to adopt a more high profile image now, believing that merely being seen to be supporting the Prime Minister would provide a hugely needed confidence boost.'

Faced with these sharply contrasting examples - two women each accused of handicapping her husband's administration, though acting in directly opposite ways - I am glad not to be teaching a college course for Power Spouses. Which approach would you promote to your students: assertive or reserved, on-site or absentee, Lady Macbeth or Ophelia, Hillary or Norma? Between these two opposite and paradoxical challenges - 'Who the hell is Hillary?' and 'Where the hell is Norma?' - we see the extent to which social confusion about powerful women and the mechanics of marriages survives in modern societies.

The case of Hillary Clinton, occurring in the country in which the rights of women are supposedly most advanced, is particularly rich in hypocrisies. It is argued that her supposed involvement in presidential decision-making is wrong because she is a) non- elected and b) related to the president. Her contribution thus qualifies as nepotism.

In fact, the first accusation would really only be plausible against a British Prime Minister, for no member of an American cabinet is elected. If the leader of the free world can hand out departments of state to his mates or his financial backers - if, as is the case, he can call on the informal advice of anyone he chooses, up to and including the caddy at the Arkansas golf club - then why should it be thought so alarming that he chats to his wife?

As for family members in administrations, it can be argued that the United States' anti-nepotism laws, instituted after JFK appointed RFK as Attorney General, actually encourage talented relatives - and Hillary Clinton is clever and well qualified - to seek power covertly and unaccountably. A system in which relatives could serve the president, but went before Congress for approval - like all the other chums and associates put up for jobs - would legitimise blood-lines at the White House, but also allow more control over family influence.

Hillary might well have been nodded through. But if the president had attempted to sent Chelsea to Defense or Socks the cat to Justice, they would be knocked back by Congress in the usual way.

The muttering campaign against Hillary Clinton is not, however, based on coherent reasoning. It is rooted in a terror of strong and intelligent women, a dusty stereotype of a wife. According to whichever strand of Washington gossip you listen to, the First Lady is a) a lesbian or b) a nymphomaniac, these being the two smears that are traditionally aimed at successful women (although, strangely and uniquely, Margaret Thatcher escaped both, accused merely of the lesser sin of flirtation).

The loose nature of the case against Hillary Clinton is illustrated by the fact that a recent American magazine article featured both the 'Billary' smear (that Bill and Hillary are a co-presidency) and the suggestion that they have separate beds and lives. Thus, it will be observed, the same couple stands charged with being inseparable and separated.

Note also the scorn which greeted Mrs Clinton's desire to be known as the Presidential Partner rather than the First Lady. What, apart from usage and familiarity, makes the first tag more sensible than the second?

That the objectors to Mrs Clinton's influence should have included Republicans is especially amusing. It was this party which encouraged, in recent prurient negative campaigns, the idea that electors were voting not just for a man but for a marriage; that a wife was the unwritten third name on the ticket. But if it is legitimate, or necessary, for a wife to be on display during a campaign, then why not during the administration?

Republicans might reply that the leader's wife does indeed matter, but that they envisage a traditional spouse: one who keeps herself to herself and her children, while leaving to her hubby the man's work of power. Like, for example, Norma Major?

Mrs Major's recent experience suggests that Hillary Clinton should not rush to copy her example, which seems equally hard to get right. (It should also be pointed out that, lacking a 'Lady Macbeth' in Downing Street, some Tory and media men have cast Sarah Hogg, Mr Major's unelected special advisor, in that role.)

In making what are clearly delicate calculations about the public presentation of a private life, Ms Campbell and Ms Ciller, the world's latest powerful women, may be thankful that they are not married, although they should not expect to be spared curiosity, prurience, or unease about their achievements.

The governing parties in Canada and Turkey - two countries generally regarded as manly and chauvinist - have surprised us by selecting women as leaders. But Britain and America, two societies which affect greater sophistication in such matters, have perhaps surprised us more with the depths of their conventional prejudices.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments