When asked recently to name his personal hero, Beto O’Rourke responded with “my wife” — and he probably thought he’d nailed it. A noncontroversial answer, endearingly personal, good for the women’s vote. Plus, since O’Rourke got in hot water this spring for shirking his parenting responsibilities while pursuing higher office (his spouse, Amy, raises the kids “sometimes with my help,” he clumsily said), here was a chance to show how much he appreciated her, and he also cited his kids and parents.
Former congressman John Delaney must have had a similar thought process, because he, too, told the New York Times that his wife was his hero when he answered the same questionnaire, which was distributed to all Democratic presidential candidates. And so did Seth Moulton. And so did Jay Inslee. And so did Steve Bullock.
All of them: “Personal hero: My wife.”
No names. No description of who she is or why he finds her heroic, just my wife. (In videos that accompany the text, some candidates do elaborate on their admiration.)
If you’ve knocked around the Internet enough recently, you might have stumbled on a “Wife Guy,” one of the many savvy gentlemen whose personal brand is defined and propelled by his heart-on-sleeve proclamations of love for his wife. Behold how much he loves her curves, as evidenced by his many Instagram posts about loving her curves. Behold how he helps with housework, and then publicly announces he has helped with housework. Behold all of his wifely love, and then behold him, loving her.
There’s a refreshing element to this: Who doesn’t like seeing spouses love each other? There’s also an element that is, eeeugh, just a little bit much. Does anyone really need so much credit for upholding basic marriage vows?
At any rate. Who knew the Democratic primaries would turn into a bunch of Wife Guys, trying to stand out in a field packed with female candidates by assuring everyone that they, too, support women. Or, one woman, at least. Wife!
It would be mean-spirited to poke at these men who surely do admire their wives. But all the responses, en masse, start to make you think.
Being a candidate’s spouse can be a thankless job, defined by either holding down the fort at home or vamping as the warm-up act on the trail. It’s a supporting, subservient role. It’s a role defined by putting your own plans on hold: Michelle Obama had a thing or two to say about this in her 2018 memoir, and Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi, once recalled her young daughter warning her that Cruz’s campaign was “a bad deal for you.”
No female candidates who completed the questionnaire named their husbands as their heroes, by the way. (And Pete Buttigieg did not mention his husband.) Make of that what you will. What I make of it is that the women worried that doing so would make them look too retro and potentially weak — which is a whole other column. The men, however, hoped that wife-adoration would help package them as sensitive feminists.
Did it? I don’t know! I keep thinking of this scene in “The Wife,” in which Glenn Close begs her novelist husband, who is about to accept his latest big literary prize, not to thank her, as he usually does, for being so supportive. It doesn’t elevate her, she insists. It panders to her and to his audience. It only reinforces the perception that she’s the laundry-doing helpmate and he’s the benevolent genius.
A candidate declaring that his wife is his hero has the unintended consequence of making it look like the person he admires most is the person who makes his own life easier, by handling the drudgery that his important dream requires.
A candidate insisting that his wife is more heroic than him has the unintended consequence of making one wonder why he never suggested that she should be on the ticket instead.
To be fair, “my wife,” is a much better answer than many other possible answers. There’s nothing wrong with it. Along with “my parents,” which other candidates offered, it’s pretty standard and benign; there’s no reason to read too much into it.
Here is something that I noticed, though. The New York Times, when offering the questionnaire, included space for two kinds of heroes: “Personal hero” and “Political hero.” None of the candidates who listed their wives as personal heroes listed women as political heroes.
O’Rourke, of Texas, didn’t think to mention his state’s esteemed former governor Ann Richards. Climate-change crusader Inslee said his political hero was “the American voter” — but if he was going to punt by not naming an elected official, then he might as well have name checked pioneering activist Rachel Carson, whose work launched the whole environmental movement.
As a matter of fact, most of the male candidates — Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bennet, Bill de Blasio — neglected to mention female political heroes. Some female candidates did: They mentioned Shirley Chisholm and Harriet Tubman, and Julián Castro referenced Dolores Huerta and discussed how his mother’s political activism inspired his own. But most of the male candidates had little to say about women they admired specifically for their leadership, intelligence or political acumen.
“My wife” is a fine answer. But maybe next time candidates are queried about heroes, they can also look beyond their own living rooms.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse