Political spouses are experiencing an increased media scrutiny like never before. Although they are not essential to a winning candidate, history has shown that they can be more than helpful in an election. From clashes of characters such as John F Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, to the tamer relationships of politicians, the Presidents and Prime Ministers dates are always a source of fascination.
A spouse that has exceeded the title of First Lady is the recent attempt (and failure) of Hillary Clinton to gain office. Speculation as to Clinton’s failure has been attributed by some to her relationship with former president Bill Clinton- specifically regarding the troublesome relationship they had. The media has well documented Bill Clinton’s worrying accusation of alleged sexual assault and infidelity. This begs the question, is it fair that politicians are judged by their marriages, and further begs the question, SHOULD this be a reason for voting in a candidate? Hillary Clinton’s attempted candidacy has made her a model for this phenomenon, and made it unlikely that another spouse (such as the buzz around Michelle Obama’s potential candidacy) would want to put themselves up for office.
Despite this, Michelle Obama has gained a high profile in recent years, perhaps due to the popularity of her partner’s run. Coverage was and mostly is seen as positive, with her making appearances on The Late Late show with James Cordon and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. In contrast, the current First Lady, Melania Trump, who has participated in significantly fewer public appearances than Michelle Obama, has faced intense ridicule and criticism from the media, reflected in the severe unpopularity of her partner.
In recent years, the UK has been known to hound the wives of Prime Ministers. Samantha Cameron and Sherry Blair were frequented on the front pages of newspapers during their partner’s run, commenting mainly on their appearance on public outings. In 2017, Samantha Cameron was blasted by tabloids for showing her un-pedicured feet in a magazine interview. Fascination surrounding fashion, clothing choices, and appearances naturally follows female spouses in politics as it does in every other source of entertainment. In April 2016 while giving a speech about inequality, Hillary Clinton was clocked as wearing a $12,000 Georgio Armani coat which received wide media attention. Would we really care if a male candidate had done the same thing? The UK’s current Prime Minister Theresa May has a husband who faces little media coverage and is mostly secluded from criticism by the media.
Spouses involvement in actual politics is indeed varied. Brigitte Trogneux-Macron, the wife of French President Emmanuel Macron recently petitioned for a change in her status and announced that she would not hold the title of ‘First Lady’ and would not be given a budget. This is no surprise seeing as she actively participated in the campaign for Macron’s election, and instead would take a more active role in Macron’s presidency. She also took a large part in his campaign, assisting him in skills such as public speaking.
The partners of political leaders can in themselves be political statements. Brigitte Trogneux-Macron is 24 years older than her husband, and they met while she was his teacher at school (he was 16). His presidency could signify an acceptance in age-gap relationships. At the world NATO meeting, for the first time the “First Ladies” portrait was joined by a man- Gauthier Destenay, the husband of Xavier Bettel, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg. Not only was he the first male to be pictured here but also the first to be in an LGBTQ relationship. This milestone is evidence that partners do hold an integral role in defining the character that a political leader builds for themselves and for their public identity.
With Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming due for publication this November, and the husband of New Zealand Clarke Gayford arguably receiving “undue praise” for being a stay at home parent when it is a widely accepted role for female spouses, there will always be attention to the relationship and work of a political spouse, whether it is deserved or not.
– George Eldridge