Candidates' Wives Didn't Use to Campaign This Early in the Election Year

Roundup: Media's Take

Susan Baer, writing in the Balt Sun (Jan. 23, 2004):

For all the changes that have revolutionized women's lives in the last half-century and recognized women as equal partners in marriages and in the workplace, any variation in the role of a presidential candidate's spouse, generally a wife, seems to set off its own sort of culture war.

Lewis L. Gould, a historian of first ladies and professor emeritus at the University of Texas, says the public's interest in seeing political wives is not so much tied up with views about feminism or women's roles. "It's more a statement about how involved with show business running for president has become," he says. "It's like a situation comedy. Everyone steps into their role. If you start to depart from the formula, there's all sorts of unease."

He says he has been struck in this campaign by how early in the primary process most of the wives have become active, noting that in 1960, Jacqueline Kennedy became involved - reluctantly - only after her husband had been chosen as the Democratic nominee.

"In the run-up to the first voting, people are now asking questions about the spouse," says Gould. "It's an indication of how integral a part of this process their presence has become.

"The general attitude is that running for president is so important, if a candidate has a truly intimate marriage, the wife would want to put aside her career and be a part of the campaign. There's an underlying traditionalism here that's very strong."

He wonders if the same would be true for the husband of a female presidential candidate.

Myra Gutin, another historian of first ladies and a communications professor at Rider University in New Jersey, says the spouses provide the windows into a candidate's personal life and character that voters demand.

"Having your spouse on the campaign trail is the most visible endorsement of your candidacy," she says. "It says to audiences, 'My wife or my husband is supportive of what I'm doing.' We like to know the character of a candidate, and we put his or her family in that particular basket."

The wives of the current crop of candidates have distinctive styles, from the invisible Steinberg, for whom corduroys and a sweater are said to be dressy, to the colorful Teresa Heinz Kerry, one of the nation's top philanthropists, her fortune estimated at $500 million.

With the exception of Steinberg, the wives of the top-tier Democrats have been active in their husband's campaigns, several of them outspoken women who are a far cry from the dutiful, smiling mannequin-variety of political spouses.


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