Men with presidential ambitions on both sides of the aisle expect their spouses and daughters to clean up after their misogyny and racism. If you want our support, speak with us directly.
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The paleness and maleness of the Democratic primary continues apace. And, along with the resurrection of arguments about women’s “electability,” we’re seeing the return of another ancient ritual on American politics: a powerful man sending his wife out to do penance for his sins.
The political spouse in question is Jill Biden, who has been booking appearances on radio and morning talk shows, ostensibly to promote her new memoir, but largely to deflect public questioning about her husband Joe Biden’s problems with women. On the Today show, when questioned about his habit of touching women without permission, she blamed feminism for changing the rules: “There used to be a time when it was acceptable for people to, I don’t know, connect with one another with a touch on the arm… the #MeToo movement has changed all that.” On NPR, she batted down public concern over his treatment of Anita Hill: “I mean he’s called Anita Hill, they’ve talked, they’ve spoken, and he said, you know, he feels badly. He apologized for the way the hearings were run. And so now it’s kind of—it’s time to move on.”
It is gross, as always, to see a woman bend over backward to erase other women’s pain. Not only are Jill Biden’s answers disingenuous—Anita Hill publicly called Joe Biden’s apology unsatisfactory not two weeks ago— she is in no position to speak for the affected women about what they need. (For one thing, Anita Hill is a Black woman, and Lucy Flores, who was the first to come forward with a story about Biden touching her, is Latina; Jill Biden, who is white, should probably not appoint herself as their mouthpiece.) Yet my aim here is not to point more public anger at Jill Biden, who is, after all, only doing what we expect of political wives. I’d rather redirect my anger where it belongs: at the powerful men hiding behind their wives and girlfriends and daughters to avoid consequences.
Male candidates routinely use the women in their lives to soften their image and garner support from female voters. We are not far away from the days when Ivanka Trump, Empowered Millennial Businesswoman (TM), was expected to serve as the liberal “voice of reason” within the Trump administration. Just as importantly, when those men are caught treating women badly, they call upon the women in their lives to perform public forgiveness. After the release of Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape, for example, Melania Trump went on CNN to dismiss the confessions of sexual assault as mere “boy talk,” and assured the American public that there was no reason to hold him accountable: “That is not the man that I know.”
The problem is not confined to one side of the aisle. To name two of the most prominent recent examples, Hillary Clinton and her longtime aide, Huma Abedin, were both called upon to do the “I Forgive Him Shuffle” every time Bill Clinton or Anthony Weiner were caught with their pants down. (So. Often.) Like Jill Biden and Melania Trump, they often wound up absorbing the outrage that would have been more properly directed at their husbands, and both women’s independent ambitions were hobbled by their part-time job of publicly tolerating crappy men. Trump brought Bill Clinton’s accusers to a presidential debate to deflect attention from his own sexual assault allegations (he was not debating Bill Clinton, but a substantial portion of America refused to acknowledge the difference). Abedin filed for a divorce after Weiner was caught in yet another sexting scandal, this time with a 15-year-old girl, at the height of that same 2016 election.
It’s not just sexual misbehavior. On the campaign trail, women often become live demonstrations of their husbands’ supposed gender politics, or human shields against feminist criticism. Trump’s team routinely deflected stories about his discrimination against female employees by pointing out that Ivanka was his de facto second-in-command at Trump Industries—and, despite the clear nepotism in their relationship, it sort of worked. Bernie Sanders can’t say publicly that he finds feminism unnecessary or ridiculous. (Though he frequently sends the message implicitly, through the issues he chooses to focus on, or, in many cases, ignore.) What he can do is deputize his wife to say so, as she did in 2015, she told CNN that she “doesn’t do gender politics,” and in 2019, when she told a crowd at a rally that “I know it may not be politically correct to identify myself as a wife, but it’s one of the great honors of my life.” Her gender softens the edge of her dismissiveness, and Sanders’s fans can accuse anyone alarmed by these statements of being somehow anti-feminist themselves—after all, she’s just a woman speaking her truth! Her truth, which also happens to be a component of her husband’s political message, uttered at a campaign event, for the explicit purpose of promoting his candidacy. But putting a candidate’s most sexist arguments in his wife’s mouth means that, if and when those statements generate blowback, the men responsible can avoid taking any share of the blame.
It’s futile to judge any man’s feminism by what his marriage looks like to outsiders. Yet that’s what women are continually urged to do, on the theory that being nice to one woman may indicate some special fondness for the whole gender. During John Edwards’s 2008 run, many smart feminists backed him precisely because they admired his wife, Elizabeth. In Rebecca Traister’s 2008 retrospective Big Girls Don’t Cry, Melissa Harris-Perry calls Elizabeth Edwards “a fat woman married to a good-looking man … [and] a breast cancer survivor who [had] lost a child,” not to mention an outspoken feminist and health-care advocate. Elizabeth Edwards was her husband’s human credential, and her husband’s public tenderness let women feel they could trust him: “When John Edwards looked at [Elizabeth] lovingly, it was a way of valuing a whole group of women who are not typically valued in the public sphere,” Harris-Perry said. Of course, by 2010, all those women would know that, while John Edwards was looking at Elizabeth so lovingly, he was sleeping with his campaign videographer, Rielle Hunter—and that he had begun the affair while Elizabeth Edwards was battling the cancer that eventually killed her. Smiles and hugs at a campaign rally aren’t the same as a commitment to women’s political liberation, and in fact, they don’t even prevent a man from treating his wife like shit.
This is part of what makes it so maddening that we can’t seem to elect women to the presidency; female presidential candidates are picked apart for every real or perceived sin, whereas men are hailed as feminist heroes for accomplishments such as “stands next to average-weight woman in public.” Men who publicly deploy their wives as feminist ambassadors may hold any number of archaic beliefs in private, but women who yearn for representation in the White House often have no choice but to hope the First Lady shares some of their concerns. The answer is not to blame Jill Biden, or any other woman sent out to finesse her husband’s image at the cost of her own public humiliation. It is to keep our sights trained on the powerful men who have been enabled, by patriarchy, to use the women they love as decoys, proxies and pawns—and to ask why these men still, in the year 2019, believe female voters are dim enough to have their concerns about representation appeased with a little hand-holding and a talk from a fellow gal. This is the 21st century; women are more than half of the voting public, and we are certainly more than half of the people voting in Democratic primaries. If Joe Biden wants women to stop being angry at him, he can stop cowering behind his wife’s skirt and come talk to us himself.
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