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PERSPECTIVES ON WOMEN : Goodby to the 'Lady of the Manor' : It's time Americans recognized that presidential wives can contribute as much to political life as their men.

March 22, 1992|SUZANNE GORDON | Suzanne Gordon is author of "Prisoner of Men's Dreams: Striking Out for a New Feminine Future" (Little, Brown, 1991)

When former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. made an issue out of attorney Hillary Clinton's alleged conflict of interest, he did far more than impugn the integrity of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's wife. He raised a perennial, albeit sometime peripheral, issue in American politics. That is, of course, the appropriate role of the presidential wife.

What kind of woman does a presidential wanna-be have to marry before he runs for office? What role is she supposed to play during the campaign? And, most important, what image should she project and what duties should she perform in the White House? These questions arose often during the Reagan and Carter years and surfaced again in 1990, when students at Wellesley College protested the awarding of an honorary degree to Barbara Bush because her only accomplishment was as a wife and mother.

And even before Brown questioned the ties between Hillary Clinton's law firm and the state of Arkansas, some voters may have felt that she was already overstepping the bounds of ladylike behavior by having a high-powered career, not to mention her outspoken views on a variety of public issues.

Although it is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, Americans clearly believe it is one of their inalienable rights to elect a male President who comes equipped with a flawless First Lady. Lady is the operative word here. A President's wife is, first of all, supposed to produce not only well-behaved children but even grandchildren who will, at the first sign of a photo op, sit still and smile on command.

Candidates' wives must drop everything to stand by their men on the campaign trail, even if that means downplaying the most minimal expression of feminist sympathies. Thus Hillary Clinton prepped for her current supporting role by belatedly assuming her husband's last name out of deference to traditionalist sentiment in his home state.

Throughout the long campaign for the presidency, any potential first family is required to display not only the appearance of unity, but its actual substance. In this era, when the personal is not only the political but has almost entirely replaced the latter, couples must aspire to authenticity. Discreetly open marriages with enlightened understandings about extramarital affairs, a la the Gary Harts, just won't pass muster.

Public and private interaction between the candidate and his wife should reek of intimacy. Somehow, men who've sacrificed personal and family relationships to pursue donors and voters on the road to power are supposed to have simultaneously forged deep and enduring ties to their wives and children. And the stay-at-home spouses, rather than telling their workaholic mates that enough is enough, are supposed to enjoy it as patriotic neglect.

Once a President is chosen, the chief executive's wife can observe the business of government, but from afar. The modern-day equivalent of a 19th-Century "lady of the manor," her job is to provide succor to the poor and afflicted. Any effort to influence policy and thereby change the long-term condition of the downtrodden is definitely out of bounds.

Poor Hillary Clinton hasn't even gotten near the White House, and it's already being suggested that she might become a problem wife because of her stated intention of being an advocate for improvements in child care and education.

All of these constraints on presidential wives simply underscore the fact that public attitudes have not quite caught up with the contemporary transformation of gender roles. As feminist scholars have long pointed out, human beings, including men in general and presidents in particular, do not exist in a vacuum. They operate in the context of relationships. If these relationships are genuinely close, presidents obviously will talk shop with their wives and be influenced by at least some of their opinions and insights.

Moreover, as younger men--and, hopefully, some day women--vie for the highest office in the land, traditional spouses like Barbara Bush, who were encouraged to work exclusively as homemakers and could survive on a single paycheck while doing so, will no longer be the norm. Unless we're prepared to elect bachelors or monks to the office, Presidents will often have wives, and eventually husbands, who have jobs of their own. And because men and women tend to marry people with whom they have something in common, a spouse's career may lead to conflicts as well as convergences in political interests.

Those conflicts, as Brown correctly if ineptly suggested, are a legitimate subject for public inquiry and debate. But it's about time that Americans also recognized that candidates for First Lady, and even some who win the title, can contribute as much to political life as their men and maybe even more.

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