The Incomparable Judy Steinberg Dean

Meet Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean, career woman. Busy balancing her own thriving medical practice and raising her two children, she keeps up with what her husband does at work, but it is not her main priority. And the fact that her husband is the frontrunner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination isn't going to change that.

Judy Dean is a historical anomaly among political wives -- the stand-by-your-man spouses who drop their own careers at the first whiff of a presidential run and devote themselves solely to their husband's election. She has instead opted to continue seeing patients who, as she put it in a recent fundraising letter, "want and need to see a physician who knows them when they're ill."

"She's definitely a trendsetter in choosing her role, which is exactly what the women's community has been talking about for a very long time," said Roselyn O'Connell, president of the National Women's Political Caucus.

While the Dean phenomenon may be new in presidential campaigns, it is merely the most public manifestation of the transformation of the institution of marriage that has created greater acceptance for women's careers. A majority of married women and mothers in America now work, as families increasingly need two incomes to stay afloat. This shift in demographics may in turn have created greater acceptance for the idea of a working First Lady.

"[Dean] is saying, I'm going to live my own life. A lot of men and women will admire her for that," says Larry Sabato, who heads the University of Virginias Center for Politics. Sabato notes that many women married to governors, including Dean and Hillary Rodham Clinton, have chosen to maintain their own careers.

Other spouses of candidates have kept their day job, but not during their husband's campaigns. In 1996, Elizabeth Dole took a leave of absence from the American Red Cross to help her husband, Bob Dole. "The fact that both Dole and Clinton, an attorney, had worked professionally opened opportunities for candidates who have spouses outside the home," says Dianne Nystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. More important, the presidential ambitions of their spouses did not make a dent on the long-term aspirations of either woman, both of whom now serve in the U.S. Senate.

"Two other factors are also likely to play in Dean's favor," according to Nystrom. First, the respect many physicians enjoy and, second, the groundbreaking role of fictional first lady Abigail Bartlett on the television series "West Wing." Bartlett, like Dean, is a physician.

Yet Dean's decision is not without risks. "Her role may be acceptable during the Democratic primary, when the pool of people paying attention is smaller and more liberal than the general electorate," says Amy Caiazza, study director of the Institute for Women's Policy Research. But as more voters tune into the race later on, some segments of the public may have trouble accepting the idea that a woman can love and support her husband and still have an identity separate from his. "I'd be really surprised if that doesn't become an issue," Caiazza says.

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, agrees. "It was not too long ago that Hillary [Clinton] was being pilloried for not baking cookies," she says. In the White House, most recent political spouses, including Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Laura Bush, have adopted pet causes that reflect their own interests, such as campaigns to curb drug use and promote literacy. But their principal role consists of supporting and counseling their husbands.

When Hillary tried to take a different tack, she ran into trouble. In 1992, Bill Clinton showcased his wife by promising voters they would get two for the price of one -- a promise he came to regret early in his first term when Republicans attacked him for allowing his unelected wife to control his administration's policies. "While Dean is making reasonable choices about her career and personal life, the same people who were so angry about Hillary are going to go after Judy Dean as well," says Gandy.

The role of the "wife" remains a potentially explosive issue for a presidential campaign. John Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz, added Kerry to her last name after campaign officials thought it would be a good idea for her to show support for her husband. The outspoken Heinz Kerry had already raised eyebrows thanks to a 2002 Washington Post interview in which she both made fun of her husband's Vietnam nightmares and referred to her deceased spouse, Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), as "my husband."

Dean is likely to find herself in a Catch-22 situation as the campaign progresses. It is very possible that working women will identify with Dean and therefore vote for her husband. But, as Gandy points out, such an upside is only possible if voters get to know her, which ironically requires her to take a more active role in his campaign.

Howard Dean's campaign has acknowledged that she'll have a more noticeable presence later in the campaign. As Caiazza says, she's not going to have a choice. The media will be interested in talking with her and people are going to be interested in hearing about her.

There's another reason Dean is likely to step up her public profile. Spouses can help a candidate with two of the most important factors that determine a campaign's success: time and money. "Spouses can target specific groups of voters, such as women, and help raise money," Nystrom notes.

So far, Howard Dean has gone from an insurgent candidate to the front-runner without his wife's help. And he's made clear that he supports her decision to keep her day job. He expects her to do the same even if he wins next November. As he told the Associated Press, his wife would be "a real role model for America -- a woman who doesn't depend on her husband's career, and that's a majority of women these days."

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.

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