Saturday 16 December 2017

The first husbands' club

A new generation of men are finding they're in the spotlight as their wives win top political jobs. Will they come under the same scrutiny

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip May.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip May.
Mary Robinson and husband Nicholas Robinson
Mary and Dr Martin McAleese.
Joan Burton and husband Pat Carrol. Photo: Tom Burke.

Chrissie Russell

Showing off his slim waistline in a well-cut pair of trousers, Theresa May's husband was hailed as "stealing the show in a sexy navy suit" as he arrived at Number 10 with Britain's new female Prime Minister.

The tongue-in-cheek article, critiquing the outfit choice and 'fantastic figure' of May's banker husband, Philip, ran in 'Metro' with variations popping up elsewhere on the internet. The articles poked fun at the traditional way that politicians' waves have been viewed by the media - and for so long, it nearly always has been a woman.

Slowly but surely, things are changing. But if behind every great man there's a mostly mute and immaculately dressed woman, then who stands behind the great women… and what do they wear?

And more importantly, what do we call them? Some media outlets have been trying desperately to get HOPs (Husbands of Politicians) into the lexicon but, while there may well be the makings of a reality show in the concept, it's failed to generate the mass appeal of WAGs.

When Bill Clinton was asked about the possible title of a female president's husband he quipped that 'first laddie' might be an option. In a separate interview he dryly noted that if there was to be a first female president, the newness of that world could entitle the first husband to be called 'Adam'.

Other suggestions have ranged from functional but dull 'first spouse', 'first husband' to tiresomely infantile - former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's husband Todd expressed a fondness for 'first dude'. He would.

Laura Bush once suggested that any man taking up the role normally occupied by FLOTUS may as well be called 'Stand back and be quiet', somewhat suggesting the political spouse role isn't always occupied by one's better half, but a bitter half.

Under our own female presidencies, the husbands of both Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, made the shocking decision to be known by their own names. In a further gesture of outrageous stereotype defying, they managed to cope rather well with the fact that their wives had a powerful position.

Above anything else, they were supportive. It was Nick Robinson who encouraged Mary to consider the presidency. When asked 'who are you?' during the start of Mary McAleese's tenure as president, Martin simply replied 'the husband'. Questioned about what he thought would change now that his wife had a new job, his answer was illustrative of why the relationship worked so well. "I think it will be as it has always been," he said. "That I will be a friend as well as a husband. I can't see our own relationship changing because that has been based on trust and communication."

Far from just walking three steps behind his wife and playing golf (although he did that too) Dr Martin McAleese also played a vital diplomatic role in the Peace Process before and after the Good Friday Agreement and North/South relations. But most importantly he still managed to look good. As the 'Irish Times' reported in 2004: "He cut quite a dash when he appeared at black-tie events in a Nehru-style jacket, single stud shirt and no bow-tie or lapels." Oo-er. That's just one step short of 'flaunting' his curves.

Much is often made of the fact that many of these 'first men' assume the dubious pleasure of taking control of 'women's work' like household affairs. Martin McAleese had a role in the running of the Áras, overseeing accounts and organising guest lists. Queen Elizabeth is said to defer to Prince Philip in matters of the domestic. She might rule Britain, but he rules the kitchen.

In the case of former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, her husband Denis balanced out a demure public persona with scenes of occasional domestic tyranny, demanding five kinds of toast from the Iron Lady in the morning and launching a foul-mouthed assault when she didn't boil his eggs right.

Resentment has bubbled over in Buckingham Palace too, with Prince Philip on one occasion heard to cry "I'm just a bloody amoeba that's all". But in the main his attitude to supporting his wife's reign has been largely exemplary, surrendering a much-loved career in the navy to be by her side. As he once said his "job first, second and last was never to let her down".

Whenever it's a wife offering input into her husband's career, the perception seems to be that of a power-crazed harpy. When Michael Gove's wife's email leaked recently, the discussions between the couple about one of their careers took on the sinister sheen of an episode of 'House of Cards'. White House chiefs were said to be at their wits' end with Hillary Clinton during Bill's tenure, as she insisted in trying to get involved in affairs of state.

And yet on this side of the pond a helpful husband is seen as an asset. Joan Burton's husband, Pat Carroll, was described as "her director of elections for every campaign she's run" and applauded for taking a back seat in his own political career to assist hers. When Mary Harney announced she was departing as leader of the Progressive Democrats after 13 years, it was after three weeks soul searching on holiday with her husband Brian Geoghegan.

But if you don't fancy planning political campaigns, dinner parties or worrying about cutting a sartorial dash, you can be like the German Chancellor Angela Merkel's husband and refuse to have anything much to do with your wife's high-profile leadership.

Joachim Sauer has been so frequently absent from Angela Merkel's side that he's been dubbed 'the Phantom of the Opera' with one German newspaper observing that the quantum chemist was as "invisible as a molecule".

In the North, the recently appointed First Minister Arlene Foster, previously paid tribute to Brian, her rugby-playing former policeman husband (if you are going to be a first husband it seems to help if the press can make note of your 'masculine' pursuits), as facilitating her work in Stormont. "I could not do the job without him," she told the 'Newsletter'. "While I am primary carer for the kids, Brian is very much my support and he is always there."

We know that the mum of three "aspires to own Louboutin heels", but, for now Brian's footwear remains a mystery.

Irish Independent

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