Presidential Spouses: A Conversation Worth Having…But Not at the Democratic Debate

shutterstock_177468236With the presidential election now in full swing, the Ms. Blog is excited to bring you a series presented in conjunction with Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics. They’ll be tracking, analyzing and illuminating gender dynamics during election season—so check back with us regularly!

Is it time to change the role of a president’s spouse? When Martha Raddatz posed this question at Saturday’s debate, the reactions were swift and the ridicule real. Not only was this question viewed by many debate-watchers as irrelevant to the substantive issues facing the nation, but many critics pointed to the particularly gendered way in which the question was posed.

Amanda Terkel called Raddatz’s question “awful,” April Siese referred to it as a “major letdown,” and Rebecca Traister wrote, “The degree to which this question sucked is hard to describe.” Many more commentators and critics emerged in the Twittersphere, expressing frustration with the focus on first ladies (or gentleman). The frustration is justified in part due to the significant opportunity cost of asking this question. Critics noted that the moderators underemphasized or overlooked issues such as systemic racism, climate change and reproductive rights, while spending time on spousal influence. And, of course, posing this question first to the only female candidate in the race demonstrated the gender bias inherent in our expectations for the presidential partnership: if a woman wins the White House, how could a man possibly fulfill the feminine duties expected of first spouses?

These criticisms, however, do not negate the potential value of Raddatz’s original question, one that was quickly undermined by both Clinton’s answer and David Muir’s gender-biased follow-ups to the men on stage. Disrupting the role of a president’s spouse—or, more accurately, gender expectations of that role—is directly related to disrupting the dominance of masculinity in perceptions of the presidency itself. While Raddatz emphasized the ceremonial roles that first ladies have played to date—choosing flowers and china among them—first ladies also play a less overt role of helping their husbands meet the gender-stereotypical demands of executive office. As Dr. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell wrote two decades ago, the U.S. presidency has long been a two-person career, where an “appropriately feminine first lady is needed to complement her chief executive husband and serve as a testament to his masculinity.” A female spouse reflects the masculine credentials of her male spouse—strength, independence and heroism—and positions him as the patriarch and protector of both his family and the nation.

As Drs. Shawn and Trevor Parry-Giles argue, the masculinization of the presidency casts women in the role of supporter rather than active participant, which is why the idea of women disrupting that role has generated such significant backlash. Recall New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s criticism of Michelle Obama for emasculating her presidential spouse by citing his weaknesses and faults on the campaign trail, or the ever-present reminders of Hillary Clinton’s discomfort in a supporting role—whether rejecting the idea that she should simply have “stayed home and baked cookies and had teas” or would “stand by her man like Tammy Wynette.” When women have rejected the responsibility of reflecting the masculinity of their male spouse, they have not only challenged gender expectations of their role, but have also, according to critics, created doubts about their husbands’ power and dominance.

Countless first ladies have expanded their influence in spite of these constraints, and relegating their roles to ones of support, symbolism and ceremony is both unfair and inaccurate. However, they have moved carefully and strategically, navigating a minefield of gendered expectations. Maybe it is time to change the role of a president’s spouse, as Raddatz argues, to accommodate more modern versions of gender roles and a more equitable balance of gender power between president and spouse. But this change is less about who chooses the china and more about reimagining and redefining gender expectations of both members of the presidential partnership. Empowering presidential spouses should neither occur because that spouse is male nor at the potential expense of a female Commander-in-Chief.

For so long, we have viewed men in support, or secondary, roles to female partners as untenable or even inappropriate; just look to images of out-of-place husbands from fictional portrayals of first gentlemen in Kisses for my President and, most recently, ABC’s Commander in Chief. While we assume no man would be comfortable in the traditional helpmate role of presidential spouse, David Muir’s follow-up questions to the male candidates reflected potential discomfort with women in the West Wing—whether as president or spouse. He asked whether Jane Sanders or Katie O’Malley would have a desk in the West Wing, subtly reminding the audience of the only woman who has done so to date: Hillary Clinton. He also asked whether Katie O’Malley, a local judge, would be prepared to quit her job to serve as first lady, a question that was not posed about Bill Clinton. If changing the role of presidential spouse means altering gender-based assumptions of power and appropriateness, men and women who may hold the role should be held to the same standards.

The risk associated with altering the accepted influence of a presidential spouse is likely greater for a woman president. Dr. Georgia Duerst-Lahti cites the double standard in presidential partnerships that works to women executives’ disadvantage: “The problem for women … is that men are assumed to be entitled to a helpmate wife who seldom threatens his stature, whereas a woman can have a helpmate only under unusual circumstances and in most cases will not be seen as uninfluenced by him.” She continues, “Women struggle to be known as independent actors, whereas men are known as little else—even when they themselves acknowledge the supportive connections that make their performance possible.” This realization gets to the heart of our curiosity about the role of our first-ever first gentleman, which is far less concerned with whether the man will monitor the flower arrangements and much more concerned with the degree to which he will influence his wife’s professional decisions.

The candidates’ responses to the spouse-specific questions posed in Tuesday’s debate were not terribly enlightening or surprising. While some called Clinton’s response “disappointing” in its acceptance of gendered roles, Rebecca Traister’s analysis accurately noted the double bind she faced:

It left Hillary stuck; she could not have told us that Bill would oversee the meal-planning and china patterns because a) he wouldn’t and b) clearly the idea of a man (a former president!) doing such silly (lady!) things is hilariously awful enough that it merited a debate question. But she also couldn’t tell the truth, which is that she would delegate it to a staffer, because that would make her sound imperious and unfeminine.

Sanders and O’Malley both touted the important roles of their wives while noting their intellect and independence to head off the almost inevitable criticism that they, too, adhered to dated gender ideals.

In this respect, the questions did little to help undecided voters determine who should be the Democratic nominee for president. But they did illuminate underlying gender dynamics of the presidency as a social institution where masculinity—men performing it and women reflecting it—dominates public perceptions and expectations. Raddatz opened the door to a conversation about the gender inequities expected in the presidential partnership, but, unfortunately, that’s not the conversation that followed on Saturday. A presidential debate may not be the place for that conversation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a conversation worth having.

Photo via Shutterstock

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Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics. Find her on Twitter @kdittmar

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