Spitzer scandal shows gender politics' inequality

Newsday, March 14, 2008
By Stephanie Coontz

To most Americans, the most heart-rending image of the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal had to be that of his ashen-faced wife standing silently beside him at the podium Monday as he apologized for his transgressions and then again, on Wednesday, when he resigned.

One reporter noted during the unfolding scandal that Silda Wall Spitzer was "living through the worst nightmare for any political spouse."

We've seen plenty of wives in this position in recent years. But it's hard to imagine that political husbands are haunted by the nightmare that it might happen to them.

Perhaps that's because they know their wives have lower expectations of spousal adoration than their male peers, or because unfaithful women tend to have affairs with equal or higher-status men, who have an equal or higher stake in discretion.

If a female political leader did get caught in a sex scandal, having her husband stand silently by the podium while she sought forgiveness would probably make matters worse. Many Americans would conclude that she was a castrating witch married to a wimp.

Maybe it's a sign of progress that men are now supposed to beg their wives' forgiveness for infidelity. Through most of history, wives were expected not to forgive adultery but to pretend it never happened.

As Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy carried on flagrant adulterous liaisons, journalists joked about them with other insiders rather than suggest that their wives were owed any apologies.

Americans today are far less tolerant of male adultery than in the past, and the public is unwilling to even consider forgiving a male politician unless his wife first shows that she forgives him. But even a wife's saintly support no longer works very well to get an errant politician off the hook.

The guys keep trying, though, because the American public doesn't seem ready to accept the messy realities of a real marriage between two partners who are - for better and for worse - equally apt to require forgiveness and equally free to bestow or withhold it.

Consider the ambivalence that many people expressed toward Hillary Clinton 's public reactions to her husband's infidelity. Because she had her own political ambitions, many people viewed her expressions of forgiveness as evidence that she was not a good wife - that she was staying in a humiliating marriage for her own good, and not her family's.

Americans expect our male political leaders to be married with children. A demonstratively supportive wife gives a man a halo effect even if he has a long history of marital misbehavior. But we prefer our strong female figures not to have obvious family attachments. Think Condoleezza Rice , Janet Reno , Golda Meir , Mother Teresa and even Jackie Kennedy - who plummeted in popularity when she stopped being a self-sacrificing widow and became the self-interested wife of a Greek shipping tycoon, but regained her stature after her second husband's death, when she was redefined as a working widow.

We assume that a man's family will offer him uncritical support and free him to fulfill his duties. We assume that a woman's family will distract her.

This double standard can be seen in business as well as politics. Outright discrimination on the basis of gender has been all but eliminated in the workplace. But women still face discrimination on the basis of family status. Today, unmarried and childless women earn just about as much as men, and in several American cities women in their 20s earn more, on average, than their male peers.

Yet, once spouses and children enter the picture, the gap between men and women again widens. Married men have an earnings advantage over unmarried men. Married women, however, have no such advantage over their single counterparts, and women with children face substantial penalties.

In 2005, Cornell researchers Shelley Correll and Stephen Bernard created 600 fictitious resumes for midlevel marketing positions. Half mentioned relocating with their families and indicated participation in a school board; the other half simply mentioned relocating, with no reference to family. Women who did not mention family ties were almost twice as likely to be deemed hirable.

And when applicants with discernible family ties were selected, men with children were offered a salary of, on average, $6,000 more than childless men, while women with children were offered $11,000 less than the childless women.

A man who wields political or economic power in America, whether he be a politician, attorney or chief executive, is rewarded for having a devoted wife. It is assumed that she will take care of family duties so her husband can work long hours for the corporate or public good, and provide public displays of loyalty to bolster her husband's image.

But a powerful woman is penalized for her family relationships, no matter which way they play out. If her husband appears to focus more on the family than she does, her femininity is suspect. If she seems to focus on her husband and children, her commitment to her work is suspect.

We'll know we've made real progress when neither male nor female leaders are penalized for combining family commitments with public duties or rewarded for exploiting their family's loyalty.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

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