Can Paula Broadwell Reclaim Her Story?

Feminists have good reason to cringe when reading the news about General David Petraeus’ resignation as head of the CIA. It should be a simple enough story: He made an error he regrets. Apparently he deceived his wife and some of his colleagues and he’s resigning from his position. To his credit, he doesn’t seem to be blaming anyone, nor is he maligning his lover, Paula Broadwell.  The same can’t be said of a popular media, which has reduced her existence to being the egregious mistake Petraeus made.

Two disturbing issues in the media portrayal of Paula Broadwell are all too familiar. First, Broadwell, like so many women before her, is having her character maligned, the motives of her work questioned and, in the long run, stands to lose far more future credibility than Petraeus. Second, media sources continually discuss marital infidelity in language that upholds sexist roles, framing women as homewreckers and victims and men as sovereign individuals capable of making mistakes and moving on from them. This framing is sometimes so subtle and feels so normal that we don’t even see it, yet it affects not only how we see Petraeus and Broadwell but also how we see all men and women involved in the institution of marriage.

At first glance, Petraeus and Broadwell seem to have a lot in common, though their stories will unfold very differently as a result of their sexual relationship. Both are West Point graduates with a penchant for high-level athletic pursuits, a history of military service and a laudable record of accomplishments. His are well known, and though she is a generation behind him in age, she is a Harvard Research Fellow, will soon receive a Ph.D. and has researched and written a book about Petraeus–an accomplishment that should remain undimmed by her romantic relationship with him. But he is being portrayed as the fallen giant and she as the selfish slayer of his career, as well as a potential Mata Hari-like character. Reports don’t seem concerned about what will happen to her career as a result of his choice to disclose their relationship.

Structural analyses of the breaking articles show that Broadwell is most often the subject of the sentence when the writer seeks to malign and/or show her as the recipient of favor. ABC News, for example, says “Broadwell enjoyed tremendous access to the general.” The Huffington Post writes, “The FBI is conducting an ongoing investigation into Broadwell to see whether she had improper access to Petraeus’ emails and may have seen classified information.” The next sentence reads, “Petraeus himself is not being investigated.”  Given the structure of the paragraph, a reader could just move on with a negative feeling about Broadwell, convinced that he is not implicated in alleged wrong-doing–even though if she couldn’t have had access if he did not give or allow it.

Numerous news sources (ABC, Daily Mail UK, among others) are also describing Broadwell as Petraeus’ mistress, rather than framing the two of them as lovers. In this sentence construction, his statement, “I had an affair” is revised to alter her identity. She becomes easier to define by the role she had in his life, rather than readers being prompted to consider the choices they both made. Let’s not forget that we are speaking of two consenting adults who chose to have sex. Or is that really what we’re discussing when the man–or in this case, both parties–are married?

Media representations of marriage most often assume that all parties have chosen monogamy, and in this case it seems that was so for Petraeas and his wife, Broadwell and her husband. The Heavy website even posted a photo of the Broadwell’s driveway in which a chalk message is written, “Dad loves Mom” along with the caption, “Now, that’s just heartbreaking.” Well, what if it weren’t heartbreaking? Couples are entitled to make their own personal arrangements regarding fidelity and relationships with friends and family. Sex outside of marriage is nothing new and need not always represent a marital tragedy. To assume that it does, and that one man’s wife became another man’s mistress, as the public language of this story often states, reifies women’s position as property. Scott Broadwell becomes a cuckold–a man from whom something has been taken by another man. There is no potential that the Broadwells are working out the terms of their relationship as they see fit, as adults and equals would do.

I certainly hope that Paula Broadwell has the wherewithal to begin reframing the public discussions about her life. I hope she finds a way to persist in her academic and professional pursuits without taking on the shame inherent in the role of “mistress” or “other woman.” I hope she won’t retreat, as Monica Lewinsky did, only to resurface in the public eye to announce her tell-all memoir of the events that changed her life. And I don’t mean her choice to have sex with Bill Clinton; I mean the media circus that defined her worth and possibilities in relationship to a powerful man.

 Photo of General David Petraeus via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Sarah Olson says:

    Perhaps you’ll consider including a photo of Broadwell rather than Petraeus … in the (otherwise really excellent, IMO) posting about Broadwell reclaiming her story?

  2. Don’t forget Petraeus’ wife- she’s also been subjected to sexist comments about her looks and age as if that provided an excuse for the infidelity. It shows that while we’ve come so far we have a long way to go still.

  3. William Jackson says:

    I’m sorry, but Ms. Broadwell is as much at fault as the general, and until they BOTH apologize to both their spouses, the Army, the President, and the Public, they BOTH deserve to be trashed mercilessly. She is not a victim here, she is one of the perpetrators, and equally guilty. Stop defending the guilty just because she’s a woman. She was wrong! And stupid! Just like him.

  4. Thank you. Your piece is the best I’ve read about this still-unfolding situation.

  5. What’s not been mentioned is that Mrs. Broadwell was the catalyst of the FBI investigation that traced harassing emails from her account to Mrs. Kelly (friend of General Petraeus) who she thought was also having an affair with him. For a woman with her career and academic credentials, you’d think she’d use better judgement. No one would have found out about her relationship with General Petraeus if she didn’t send those harassing emails to Mrs. Kelly. Overall, they’re two consenting adults who made an incredibly stupid decision to screw around on their spouses. I have no respect for either.

    • The article states: ‘Reports don’t seem concerned about what will happen to her career as a result of his choice to disclose their relationship.’

      His choice?! It seems the FBI was investigating emails that she sent, that were harassing in nature, to a woman she thought was a romantic rival. Broadwell is her own worst enemy if you ask me.

  6. Agreed, ChrisB. This story seems to still be unfolding and I wrote this before the news of her emails to the other-other woman. I still stand by the analysis of language usuage and portrayal of marriage as requiring sexual fidelity, which is doesn’t for everyone.

    And William, I believe you’ve misunderstood me if you think I’m laying more blame on him. Indeed, I’m arguing for the interpretation that they are both consenting adults. She’s being more often portrayed as conniving and aggressive by the media however, and that’s wrong. I would also not be so quick to call Petraeus’ wife a victim of the affair either (though she is surely a victim of media depictions). This is simply unknown. None of us has any business knowing what type of marital relationship these people have with their spouses. Marital fidelity is a choice from which people deviate all the time. If promises were broken, let those involved repair the trust – in private.

  7. I don’t quite agree with the post that the media portrays men in sex scandals as sovereign individuals.
    From what I’ve seen men seem more portrayed as uncontrollable weather events, especially if the scandal involves assault or harassment, and women are portrayed as sin and vice incarnate, causing men to stumble by their very existence.

  8. As usual the woman is always the ‘evil incarnate’ and the man is always the innocent party! Men are permitted to engage in extra martial affairs because they are men but women – well they are expected to be madonnas who never ever engage in sexual relationships with married men!

    Mainstream media as usual is promoting its misogynistic women-hating agenda. Nothing new there but at least Ms. is challenging this deliberate trashing of Paula Broadwell.

    By the way ‘mistress’ means male sexual property and given Ms. Broadwell was not financially dependent on Petraeus therefore she was not his ‘sexual property’ but rather engaged in a sexual relationship with Petraeus.

  9. Instead of portraying Paula Broadwell as a victim, wouldn’t it be more cognizant of women’s equality to acknowledge her own role in this public outing of her affair. If she had not signed up for a fake email address and had not sent harassing emails to both Jill Kelley and General John Allen, her private business would have remained private. Furthermore, General Petraeus did not disclose the affair; once it had been established by the FBI probe, he confirmed it and apologized. So far as I know, Broadwell has not made any such public statement. She is not someone whom I as a feminist admire nor feel needs to be defended.

  10. Beverly Chaney says:

    Thanks to current tabloid journalism, FDR, Eisenhower and JFK would all be considered unfit for office. It is unfortunate that we are being deprived of the public service of talented men and women, due to their sexual indiscretions.

    Our shortage of female candidates for political office may be partly due to the double standard the press will apply to any such sexual indiscretions in their background.

  11. It is possible that Mr. Broadwell didn’t mind his wife cheating. There are men that utilize relationships with women as a cloak for there homosexuality. There are also men that encourage and enjoy thier significant others liasions. The vast majority of men in the world however, do not condone cheating by a girlfriend or wife and harbor the highest contempt for it. Hence the amount of murder and bloodshed affiliated with infidelity committed by men. I’m thankful that my mother wasn’t a tool, and heaven forbid she was, it wasn’t broadcast.

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