Sunday 22 September 2019

Lorraine Courtney: 'Leaders' wives stuck in Stepford life of smiles as indignities are heaped on them'

Leaders’ wives: Melania Trump kisses Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alongside Donald Trump and Brigitte Macron. Photo: Andrew Parsons/Pool via Reuters
Leaders’ wives: Melania Trump kisses Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alongside Donald Trump and Brigitte Macron. Photo: Andrew Parsons/Pool via Reuters
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

Is there anything worse than being a political Wag? It's all the hassle of public life with little of the power - a Stepford life of hairspray, dinner parties for people you don't like and being on constant display.

World leaders gathered in Biarritz for the G7 summit over the weekend and as their husbands thrashed out solutions to Brexit and climate change over brandy, Melania Trump, Brigitte Macron and other world leaders' wives visited the home of a famed French red pepper on the sidelines of the summit.

Political wifery is very gendered work. No other job requires a wife to show her support for her husband in such a public way. It means doing all the things that have long been expected of women: that they be completely supportive and that they abandon their own ambitions and let their husband shine instead. That they show up and shut up.

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And they must always smile - even if you're Brigitte Macron being forced to plant a reluctant kiss on Donald Trump's bronzed cheek.

The women took a tour of the Basque region, eating lunches and watching traditional performances. It was a frivolous itinerary that showed their insignificance to the real event. They visited the village of Espelette and had lunch at the Villa Arnaga, built by Edmond Rostand, the French playwright who wrote 'Cyrano de Bergerac'. Reading about it all is a sexist slap in the face. Why on Earth were these women in France if sightseeing was all they were allowed do?

In the 21st century, we all expect that our leaders' wives play meaningful roles but if you read yesterday's papers, we seem to be living in the 1950s. Headlines gushed about Melania's Alexander McQueen dress - nobody said anything about the cut of Donald Tusk's suit. (Maybe 2020 will be the year that male politicians' shirts get a mention in news stories? Or not.)

If money, mobility and social freedom give women the right to choose whatever suits them best, then why do the women married to the men who run our world completely abandon their own agency?

Michelle Obama had to sacrifice her day job, her personal opinions and her family's privacy at the altar of her husband's political career. As she said in her speech to the 2012 Democratic convention: "My most important title is still mom-in-chief."

Speaking in an interview on BBC last year, Ms Obama said: "I still have a little imposter syndrome, it never goes away, that you're actually listening to me. It doesn't go away, that feeling that you shouldn't take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is."

Female leaders have rarely had the luxury of a decorative sidekick. Angela Merkel has managed very well without having her husband beside her for every photo opportunity. Quantum chemist Joachim Sauer - Angela Merkel's husband - doesn't play Mr Merkel. Famously, he didn't even attend her inauguration. He watched it on television in his university laboratory.

Philip May was very often absent from Theresa's side, too.

Not every first wife was prepared to be arm candy. During a 12-year tenure, Eleanor Roosevelt defied Southern Democrats by championing civil rights, wrote several newspaper and magazine columns and held women-only press conferences. She acted as her husband's "eyes and ears" in his political career after polio limited his mobility, travelling on his behalf, reporting back to him and writing publicly about them in a weekly column as well.

Barbara Bush, a lifelong lover of books and reading, dedicated her life to promoting literacy around the world. She founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, a non-profit organisation with a goal to empower families through literacy. She also helped pass the National Literacy Act in 1991, an initiative designed to empower and teach American adults to read.

In 1992, Hillary Clinton, fed up of questions about whether she could be a supportive political wife while having a job, said that she "could have stayed home and baked cookies".

Her comment insulted full-time homemakers, and she had to enter a 'Family Circle' cookie recipe contest against Barbara Bush to make up for it.

While feminism is having its most popular cultural moment in decades, political wives can and should use this to their advantage.

These women have power and influence - it's a shame to let these go to waste. I don't want to keep on watching bright and interesting women reduced to a clothes hanger for the sake of their partners' careers.

And if there must be Wags at the summit next year, let them stand centre stage, not to one side, smiling benignly in pretty dresses.

Irish Independent

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