Does an Ideal Spouse = an Ideal Commander-in-Chief?

shutterstock_29804500With 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!

In Thursday night’s undercard debate, Carly Fiorina took an unexpected—and perhaps out-of-place—jab at Hillary Clinton’s marriage, telling the crowd in her opening remarks, “Unlike another woman in this race. I actually love spending time with my husband.” She reprised the attack in her closing, where she also referred to her husband Frank as “eye candy.” Arguably, Fiorina was attempting to capitalize upon the recent focus on Bill Clinton’s infidelity, albeit indirectly. However, in emphasizing her wifely credentials, Fiorina raised an electoral hurdle that presents distinct challenges for women candidates.

Especially in running to be the sole leader of the nation—and thus, the de facto head of the “first household”—presidential contenders are often expected to prove they are both strong, capable leaders and ideal types of dominant, protective fathers and husbands. But what happens when that husband is a wife? As women navigate the gender expectations of executive office, how do they address the stereotypical expectations of the ideal spouse, whereby the wife is still tasked with reflecting and bolstering the power of a male partner instead of fully embracing or expressing her own, while still proving she is ready to be commander-in-chief?

Implicit in Fiorina’s jibe was a frequently revived attack on Clinton as a flawed spouse or, even more, an atypical woman. Whether by challenging the traditional “helpmate” role of first lady or rejecting expectations that she would stay home and bake cookies or simply “stand by her man,” Clinton has pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a part of a presidential partnership. Now, as the partner vying for the presidency, she forces voters to rethink gender role stereotypes so that wife or husband can be just as easily perceived as capable candidates and ideal spouses.

Disrupting the imbalance of gender power in the presidential partnership means not only expecting women to savor the company and protection of—and “canoodling with”—their husbands, but empowering wives, whether candidates or not, to emphasize their own substantive contributions to and/or independence from presidential campaigns.

Rethinking what it means to be an ideal spouse in presidential politics also has implications for men. In 2008, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was hyper-critical of Michelle Obama for humanizing her husband too much, writing that pointing to Obama’s flaws may be dangerous, if not emasculating: “It may not be smart politics to mock him in a way that turns him from the glam J.F.K. into the mundane Gerald Ford, toasting his own English muffins. If all Senator Obama is peddling is the Camelot mystique, why debunk the mystique?”

Dowd’s commentary reminds us that perpetuating the “mystique” of an ideal first family means that both partners must uphold gender expectations that are increasingly passé in modern American families. In fact, despite Rick Santorum’s claim on Thursday that every child’s “birthright” is to have “a mom and a dad who love them,” today’s American families are increasingly unlikely to fit this mold. According to Census data, more than 40 percent of U.S. households are not headed by heterosexual, married couples. The modern American family comes in many forms, disrupting the traditional gender ideals that have long characterized it.

But the extent of change is not yet reflected in American politics. Still, we hear (and see) male candidates refer to their wives as dutiful mothers, unthreatening helpmates and ideal women, which in turn reminds voters of their complementary roles as capable, dominant husbands and fathers, and ideal, masculine men.

So what does this all have to do with wanting to spend time with your spouse? If Fiorina sought to remind voters of the unordinary—and even allegedly inappropriate—dynamics of the Clinton marriage, her comments could be interpreted as an attempt to discredit the ability for either Bill or Hillary Clinton to fit an ideal gender role. The extent to which voters will care is questionable in 2016, when Americans are increasingly accustomed to diverse models of marriage and family. But in a Republican primary where “making America Great again” is the frontrunner’s dominant theme, it’s not surprising to hear attempts at restoring dated gender ideals.

Photo via Shutterstock


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.