Never has the life of a politician’s wife been less glamorous. Behind the requisite pearls and neat sweater sets, example after example shows political wives are being sullied and cinched by their mates’ once-prestigious appointments.
Just consider how male politicians’ better halves are cast. Most often—whether political wives’ mates are running for presidential office or a seat in Congress—these women are seen as mere accessories. Buoying their husbands, they’re coached to smile and wave, not say anything “too much their own,” and to avoid controversy at all costs. Many play the part requested of them, and rarely do we walk away with a clear sense of who these women are or what they really think.
For all of this loyal deference, the favor isn’t being returned in many politicians’ high-profile marriages. Shame, embarrassment and mortification are more likely on the menu—and inevitable, if you happen to have a husband whose eye wanders.
Think of the sex scandals that have rocked the civic marriages of women like Maria Shriver, Silda Spitzer, Hillary Clinton, Jenny Sanford, and now the pregnant Huma Abedin, wife of former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner. Each of these women was extremely accomplished in her own right, without the help of her significant other—employed as a journalist, a high-flying lawyer, an investment banker, even a secretary of state’s special assistant. Still, when a scandal breaks, we don’t see these women’s top-notch educations or professional accomplishments. The portrait more often painted is one of a tragic, hapless victim.
In spite of the damage caused, it seems that male politicians who cheat feel infallible, confusing their span of authority with a false sense of being untouchable. When John Edwards, for example, was asked about why he cheated by ABC’s Bob Woodruff, he blamed the affair on the hero worship involved in political life. “I went from being a senator, a young senator, to being considered for vice president, running for president, being a vice presidential candidate and becoming a national public figure. All of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want. You're invincible. And there will be no consequences."
Christin Munsch, a Ph.D. student from Cornell University, has conducted research looking at how infidelity converges with social exchange theory, or the way we process cost-benefit analysis in a relationship. Specifically, she found that men who earn more than their wives are more inclined to cheat, as are men who earn significantly less than their wives. What’s interesting here is that the power differential in a relationship—and one’s level of dependence on another—can give the relationship’s “powerhouse” more perceived license to rove.
More recent research conducted by Professor Joris Lammers of Tilburg University (Netherlands) points to a deeper discovery: “There is a strong association between power and confidence…the amount of confidence a person has is the strongest link between power and unfaithfulness.” That confidence, which is encouraged in a politician’s professional life, can translate to risk-taking and personal recklessness.
While less data exists on the fidelity of powerful women, we know that females don’t enter the political realm with the same goals as men. I talked to Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, president and CEO of the Women’s Campaign Fund and its affiliated program, The She Should Run Foundation, about these differences. Bennett explained, “Research shows that men run for office because they see it as a pathway to power, while women run because they want to help make change—in their communities, their cities, their states and the nation. This ego-driven, versus change-driven, difference predicts that men elected are far more likely to engage in behaviors destructive to them and to voters.”
Bennett went on to distinguish that women are far less likely than men to run for public office. Deterrents include unchecked sexism, unsavory media portrayals and inappropriate personal attacks, the latter two of which women worry will affect their families. Despite studies that show voters perceive women as more trustworthy and that elected women are more productive than men, the U.S. is ranked 87th in the world in the number of women serving in its national legislature, behind Cuba and Afghanistan.
While cheating politicians bring new meaning to the term “compromise” in marriage, doesn’t forgiveness send a confusing message to girls and young women? Perhaps the poetic injustice of “standing by your man” is better channeled into running for office yourself. Posited Bennett, “I think it’s safe to say that more women in politics would directly translate to fewer sex scandals, and more focus on the issues that matter to our country. More women in elected office will result in more ethical and moral outcomes.”