Exit the Political Wife

NEW YORK – France’s new president, François Hollande, is not married to his partner, the glamorous political journalist Valerie Trierweiler, and no one seems to care. Germany’s president, Joachim Gauck, is not married to his partner, the journalist Daniela Schadt, and no one seems to care. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, is not married to his partner, the domesticity guru Sandra Lee, and no one seems to care. The list could easily be continued.

Is the adoring political spouse – so much a part of the political landscape that she has her own iconography, from knit suits to the dreamy upward gaze at her man – receding into the past?

It is true that in America, at least, hay can still be made from the role of political wife. President Barack Obama may have experienced his first major dip in the polls – and his first real slide with women voters – when a partisan supporter, Hilary Rosen, said that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann Romney, had never worked a day in her life. But the response to Rosen’s remark underscored the relative absence of the usual heightened scrutiny of the political wife’s hair and clothes, profession and cookie recipe.

It was only 20 years ago that, during Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, his wife Hillary’s career – that is, the fact that she had one of her own – sparked wild and vituperative debate. There was even her absurd “bake-off” against First Lady Barbara Bush, in which she had to produce her own cookie recipe in order to appease a lingering cultural demand for domesticity in the role.