Political Power Couples in the Media: Reinforcing Gendered Expectations

The small, north-eastern state of New Hampshire, buried in the heart of New England, is known for several firsts. The first North American colony to reject British rule and write its own constitution,1 in more recent years it has become known for the New Hampshire Primary, the first primary to take place in the seemingly endless round of caucuses and nominations that make up the U.S. presidential election cycle. In the early days of the new year, under a blanket of snow, residents of The Granite State were treated to another unfamiliar – if not exactly unknown – sight: that of a former President pulling up stumps to campaign for his wife.

This is not the first time that Bill Clinton has hit the hustings to drum up support for Hillary. Indeed, his speech at the 2008 New Hampshire primary was widely criticised for what were seen as his aggressive attacks on senator Barack Obama, Hillary’s rival for the Democratic nomination.2 Nevertheless, the appearance of a former President on the campaign trail attracts a level of media attention not experienced by other political spouses.

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As a previous holder of the top job – and one whose tenure ended in controversy at that – Clinton remains a figure of public fascination, whose campaigning on behalf of his wife draw inevitable parallels to his own success in 1992. At the same time, the avid interest with which Bill’s involvement is followed by the media is related in no small part to the possibility of yet another ‘first’: that a woman, let alone a former First Lady, could become President of the United States.

If inauguration day 2017 sees Hillary Rodham Clinton sworn into the White House as Commander in Chief of one of the most powerful nations in the world, nearly 230 years of tradition, built on the legacy of the forty-four men who held the position before her, will be thrown up in the air. For, while one could assume that the general business of governing carries on much the same regardless of gender, numerous pundits and news organisations have busied themselves with worrying over the ceremonial details of the position. What role, for example, would Bill Clinton play in the White House? Is there a male equivalent for First Lady? Will he be First Gentleman? Will he busy himself with entertaining the wives of other foreign leaders on state visits, and coordinating the annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn?

Speculation on these topics not only reveals the centrality of gender to media coverage of the Clinton campaign (what male candidate would be asked during a Democratic debate whether it is ‘time to change the role of a president’s spouse?3), they also highlight an enduring perception of political couples. Namely, that they are an either/or phenomenon. There can only be one powerful figure at any one time – the other partner must occupy the role of support staff. In a world where gender equality is promoted as the ideal, and  marriage itself is increasingly viewed as a partnership in which both parties can pursue their careers without one taking a back seat, our expectations of political power couples seem firmly stuck in the past.

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Early this year, Lucy Turnbull was announced as the inaugural head of the Greater Sydney Commission, an infrastructure committee of the New South Wales state cabinet.4 As a lawyer, councillor, mayor, chairman of numerous boards, philanthropist, author, bank director, and Officer of the Order of Australia, her appointment to the role shouldn’t raise eyebrows.5 One aspect of her private life, however, has resulted in intense scrutiny being drawn to her involvement in public service in any capacity: her marriage of thirty-plus years to the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

During an interview in September last year, Turnbull addressed her 2003 sacking as Lord Mayor of Sydney (the first female to hold the position), claiming the politically motivated decision was made following her husband’s victory in a Liberal preselection battle. Under a Labor state government led by Premier Bob Carr, Turnbull attacked what she called the ‘19th-century idea’ that ‘because my husband was going into politics, I could not be trusted to be a politically independent person.’6

The idea that the political opinions of the husband must necessarily be shared by the wife is not a new one. The battle for female suffrage was held back for years by the belief that withholding the vote from women didn’t deny them representation – after all, their husbands and father’s were voting, and surely they shared the same opinions. Indeed, Grace Saxon Mill, whose Arguments Against Women’s Suffrage was published in the early years of the twentieth century, argued that disenfranchised women instead held ‘a vast indirect influence through their menfolk on the politics of this country’.7 Whether the legacy of these views in our own time factored into Turnbull’s dismissal or not, a tendency to assume political as well as personal harmony within a relationship is all too common.

An old adage offered to young men trying to impress their girlfriend’s family was that they should agree with her father on politics, and her mother on religion. But how often do the views of a husband and wife align? Relationships, and marriages in particular, are commonly understood to work on a basis of compatibility – of shared interests, backgrounds, beliefs, and values. How often this is actually the case is another story. Hillary Clinton, in describing her childhood household, remembered her father as ‘a conservative Republican’, while her mother was ‘a real social-justice Democrat. They used to cancel each other’s votes out in every election.’8 From the kitchen table to the halls of power themselves, the 1993 marriage of Mary Matalin, a Republican political consultant, and James Carville, a Democratic political strategist, represented an extreme example of a truly bipartisan union. As spouses, not only do their political views diverge, but they are immersed in them daily as part of their full-time careers. Both agree not to talk about divisive political topics at home, with Matalin telling one interviewer, ‘we got in such horrible fights over Iraq that James just decided we weren’t going to discuss it.’9

Across the world, power is increasingly being wielded by a number of high-profile female politicians. Just this year, the response of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the European migrant crisis saw her named Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’, the first woman to be awarded the honour since 1986.10 But while we may be growing used to women in positions of power, we seem most comfortable casting their husbands and partners in the role of a weak and ineffective accessory.

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Denis Thatcher, husband to legendary ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher, gained a reputation as a mild, golf-playing retiree, a perception enhanced by the ‘Dear Bill’ letters published by British satirical magazine Private Eye during the Thatcher government.11 His ‘willingness to stay in the background’, according to his obituary in the Guardian, ‘proved very helpful to Mrs Thatcher’.12 Closer to home, Tim Mathieson, the partner of deposed Prime Minister Julia Gillard, was treated by the media as a slightly ridiculous figure of fun, the hairdressing ‘First Bloke’.

The idea that a career in public life can only flourish with the support and sacrifice of a dedicated and loving partner underpins popular representations of political figures (of either sex) and their spouses. When this accepted pattern is challenged by the ambitions of the second partner (particularly if this partner is a woman), the natural order of things seems thrown out of balance. John Warhurst, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at ANU, warns the phrase ‘two for one’ when describing power couples in the mould of Bill and Hillary, needs to be used with some care. ‘At the centre of the danger is the perception of conflict of interest’, he says. ‘Barriers have to be built between their careers or people will start to talk.’13

During the 1992 election campaign that saw Bill Clinton swept to power, a New York Times profile on Hillary addressed what was perceived to be her polarizing nature. A graduate of Yale Law School who had kept her own name until her husband entered public office, from the start Clinton vowed to be a hands-on First Lady – ‘two presidents for the price of one’. Questioned on accusations that her legal practice had improperly benefitted from her husband’s position as Governor of Arkansas, Clinton fired back with an instantly iconic phrase: ‘I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.’14 It was statements like these that alienated her from some voters, and led one Republican consultant to note, ‘there’s a certain familiar order of things, and the notion of a coequal couple in the White House is a little offensive to men and women.’15 Whether as a result of this backlash or not, subsequent First Ladies have been reluctant to take as public a role during their husband’s tenure. Michelle Obama, for example, is a Harvard and Princeton-educated lawyer who first encountered her husband as his supervisor at a Chicago Law Firm.16 Despite these achievements, she has repeatedly referred to herself as ‘Mom in Chief’ first and foremost, an explicit emphasis on her domestic priorities as wife and mother that consciously distances herself from the image of a Lady Macbeth-type power behind the throne.

As the US electoral cycle cranks up a gear in 2016, the Clinton marriage – as much as Clinton herself – will be followed with avid interest not only by the public, but also by her rivals in the race for the Presidency, as Donald Trump’s attacks on Bill’s numerous indiscretions have already demonstrated.17 The world of contemporary politics has not yet experienced a political couple on par with Bill and Hillary. Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon may have ruled fifteenth-century Spain together as the Catholic Monarchs, but theirs was a bond of political marriage, not one tested through the rigors and systems of the modern democratic process. Somewhere, between presiding over the Spanish inquisition and staying home to bake cookies, lies the key to success for the modern political power couple.

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About Georgia Oman

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Georgia's chief ambition in life is to win the Eurovision Song Contest. Failing that, a Pulitzer will do.