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The Marriage Penalty

With more women entering public life, their husbands' behavior can determine their success. Just ask Hillary.

March 11, 2001|Fiona Morgan | Fiona Morgan is an associate news editor at

SAN FRANCISCO — Hillary Rodham Clinton has had to endure two trying forms of scrutiny since she took office as the junior U.S. senator from New York: accusations of influence peddling and lying regarding her husband's controversial pardons, and continued armchair psychoanalysis by political pundits, liberal and conservative alike. Both treatments reflect the kind of expectations the public has of its public figures, and the special intensity of those expectations for women in public life.

There has never been a political marriage like the Clintons', but marriage as political alliance has long existed. Public figures have rarely succeeded without a spouse backing them up: humanizing candidates by anchoring them to a private existence; filling in with charm and grace where their other half could not; and often advising them on their work. Everyone from politicians to military brass to corporate elites and church leaders have needed a loyal, well-groomed ally at their sides.

Now that women are entering public life in greater numbers, the institution of the marriage alliance is getting a shake-up, and the way it plays out in Sen. Clinton's case may well serve as a precedent. Indeed, her case is special. Not only did she play an extraordinarily active public role as first lady, not only was she deemed at least equally culpable for many of the legal scandals that afflicted her husband, but she also has now eclipsed him politically--the first first lady to run for elected office and win.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 18, 2001 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Opinion Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Dole--In "The Marriage Penalty," published March 11 in the Opinion section, former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole was incorrectly identified as a former vice president. Dole was Gerald Ford's running mate in 1976.

Even if you find it as difficult to believe as I do that she knew nothing whatever of her brothers' involvement in the controversial commutations of the sentences of herbal-remedy marketer Almon Glenn Braswell and drug dealer Carlos Vignali, you might also be troubled by the fact that her husband's actions are dogging her own political career. A recent Zogby poll of Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties--upstate counties she worked so hard to win over--showed that 57% of respondents view her more negatively since election day, that fewer than one in five believe she knew nothing about the pardons and that 68% think her denials are an attempt to distance herself from the mess her husband made. It doesn't bode well.

Still, Clinton isn't the first political woman to be called out for her husband's shady deals. Think of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's troubles because of her wealthy husband's business dealings, and the decline of former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro after news reports of her husband's alleged ties to the mob.

Yet, the conflation of women's careers with those of their husbands may have less to do with outright bias than with the fact that men typically have more public lives. Men have much less experience watching out for their actions and reputations with their wives' careers in mind. That said, can you think of a bigger liability as a spouse than Bill Clinton?

"Men don't have the experience of having to manage life in a way that doesn't reflect poorly on the women they're with," says Marie C. Wilson, president of the White House Project, a nonpartisan advocacy organization that strives to bring more female candidates into the mix. She believes that as the tables turn, we'll see more men considering whether their actions help or hurt their wives' quest for access and influence. But we'll also see more gaffes along the way.

Take the case of Elizabeth Dole. Former Sen. Bob Dole didn't help his wife's rather short-lived 2000 presidential campaign when he told the press he didn't think she had much of a shot at raising enough money--and that he'd be writing a check to Arizona Sen. John McCain. "Can you imagine how a woman who did that to a husband who was running would be punished?" asks Wilson. The lack of uproar around Dole's remark was a bit telling.

Some have said that Elizabeth Dole's policies weren't different enough from George W. Bush's to set her apart as a candidate, and that her most notable quality is that she is a woman. It might be a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument, as Dole was also subject to the "hair, hemlines and husbands" treatment that still afflicts coverage of women candidates in the media. A study by the White House Project found that, in coverage in five national newspapers (the L.A. Times included), only 14% of the paragraphs written by male reporters about Dole's candidacy addressed her positions on issues, compared to 34% for Bush and 20% each for McCain and Steve Forbes. The rest of the coverage of Dole's campaign focused on her personal life, her kids, her appearance and her marriage to former Vice President Dole. In contrast, the study found that women reporters covered each candidate's positions equitably.

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