Media

Political Barbies

The wives of modern presidential candidates are smart, independent women – but no one in the media seems to notice.
The women married to presidential and vice presidential candidates have become increasingly active in their husbands' campaigns and policies over the last century. But despite growing recognition by the press of their broadened role, some recent coverage doesn't seem to have caught on. The women are too often treated as decorative add-ons whose field of operations rarely extends beyond the strictly personal.

In the July issue of Washingtonian magazine, for instance, Russell Warren Howe chooses to emphasize Teresa Heinz Kerry's entertaining skills. "One place where tradition prevails is an old mansion on the 3300 block of O Street. You can sit down there at a table covered with fine linen – a table to which servants bring cuisine on heated china plates, and where the hostess, Teresa Heinz Kerry, chooses the menu and directs the kitchen."

Howe, a former president of the Foreign Correspondents' Association of Washington, then goes on to compare Heinz Kerry to Pamela Harriman and manages to slight another influential woman by recalling Harriman as a legendary hostess and consort to famous men rather than in her role of a lifetime: ambassador to France.

In a June interview with the Kerrys, CBS News' Byron Pitts homes in on the couple's amorous side. Instead of getting Kerry to talk about the kinds of endeavors his wife has supported, or the kinds of interests that must hold such a power couple together, we hear Kerry describing his wife as "Saucy. Sexy. Brilliant." Heinz Kerry concurs. "I am sexy. I have got a lot of life inside," she tells Pitts. Pitts then manages to rub in all that ageist stuff about women over a certain age.

"You do not hear many 65-year-old women say they are sexy." Unfazed, Heinz Kerry pleasantly zings him back. "How many women of that age have you asked?" she said.

In her May 3 cover story for Newsweek, reporter Melinda Henneberger chooses to worry that the Kerrys aren't sticking closely enough to gender-role scripts.

"Does he [Kerry] worry that she communicates a perhaps too-European brand of confidence in herself as a 'lot of woman' – at a time when he is being derided as 'looking French?'" This is psychological silliness and a strange fixation on appearances at a time when serious and substantial policy issues, such as how long U.S. forces are going to be in Iraq, might actually be on readers' minds.

Later in the article, headlined, "Teresa: Is John Kerry's Heiress Wife a Loose Cannon-or Crazy Like a Fox?" Henneberger quotes Vanessa Kerry, the candidate's daughter, as rejecting the notion that her stepmother should be "muzzled." Speaking for many women, Vanessa Kerry said, "How offensive to her and to all women."

Even CNN's Judy Woodruff, a seasoned political journalist from whom we usually receive top-flight analysis, offered a disappointing take on first ladies. In a piece for "Newsnight with Aaron Brown" that aired the day Kerry selected John Edwards as his running mate, Woodruff reduced recent first ladies to labels. She spoke of "controversial Hillarys," "glamorous Jackies" and "demure Lauras." Then she went on to assess one who could be next: "Teresa breaks the mold . . . she's always outspoken . . . hard to package and impossible to rein in . . . Some in the senator's campaign says she speaks her mind too much."

Then Woodruff wrapped up the segment by commenting on the difference between Heinz Kerry's pumpkin spice cookie recipe ("different, an acquired taste") and Laura Bush's oatmeal chocolate chunk cookie recipe ("traditional") in a Family Circle readers' contest.

It's almost surreal that someone like Woodruff, who has carved a distinctive role for herself as a judicious journalist, would resort to the implication that cookie-recipe ingredients are metaphors for the women themselves. In the present strained geopolitical climate, weren't there other observations to be made about the important advisory and quasi-ambassadorial role played by the presidential partners?

Why the "qualifications" for first ladies get treated in such a narrow way confounds those of us who have considered their role.

In their review of the treatment of first ladies in textbooks on government and the presidency ("sporadic, spotty and sometimes non-existent"), Anthony Eksterowicz of James Madison University and Robert P. Watson of the University of Hawaii found that the activities and influence of the first ladies have become more overtly public and political over the 20th century.

"First ladies wield influence in private as behind-the-scenes advisors and in public as hostesses, advocates of charitable projects and as political operatives," they say.

Nevertheless, more than 200 years after Martha Washington originated the role, and more than 100 years after Edith Roosevelt became the first lady to obtain formal staff assistance, some reporting continues to pen these women into a no-win situation.

If she attends her husbands' cabinet meetings, as did Rosalynn Carter, there's a suspicion that she's meddling in policy. If she chairs a policy committee, as did Hillary Rodham Clinton, she's labeled "co-president." If behind her interest in fashion and decorating is a single-minded devotion to her husband and a role as his closest advisor a la Nancy Reagan, she's a dragon lady who is to be feared.

But if she's absent from the campaign trail and occupied with her own pursuits, as physician Judith Steinberg Dean was during the Democratic primaries, the press speculates on her capacity to take on the role of first lady.

And if she's reserved and keeps her opinions to herself, that's noted as well, but only with the faintest of praise. Detroit News columnist Laura Berman, writing in 2001, said, "No first lady has ever seemed more blandly appropriate for the position than Laura Bush. If the cliche of the first lady is that of the supportive wife enhanced by careful dress, Mona Lisa-like smile, aptitude for background poses and well-chosen causes, Laura Bush fits and then some."

The media's critical and wary coverage of these women implies that independence and critical thinking in first ladies may be liabilities for their husbands and, by extension, the nation. It reflects a fundamental discomfort with women ascending to power at the sides of men who, by all accounts, need and love them for their smarts and their hearts; not their zipped lips and cookie recipes.
Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism."
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