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Lesbian Notions

Their Better Halves

Paula Martinac | January 23, 2004

US President Bill Clinton (L) and wife Hillary at the White House in 1998
Photo: AFP/Joyce Naltchayan
As the race for the White House heats up and the squabbles among the leading contenders - all straight white men in suits - become tiring, I find myself wishing that some of their wives were running instead. The women behind the men are often more politically interesting than the candidates we actually get to choose from.

For me, this isn't a new revelation. Back in 2000, I supported Bill Bradley for president - all the while thinking that his wife, Ernestine, would be a better, more progressive candidate, if only she had been eligible for the job (she wasn't born in the United States). The thoughtful, intelligent college professor wasn't afraid to publicly criticize her husband's refusal to support same-sex marriage rights and to state that he had a long way to go in his thinking on the issue.

That same year, I was thrilled to cast a vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton for a U.S. Senate seat for New York, as she finally emerged from her place behind Bill. Her own political ambitions had long seemed clear - but thwarted by the reality of how far women can go in national politics on their own.

The truth is, white men have been in political power in Washington way too long. As a result, their confidence in their deeply entrenched power seems to have left more and more of them bereft of ideas. The "vision" of the current administration, for example, is to turn the clock back to the good old days, before the social programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt were implemented. In this "original" train of thinking, the last great American president was William Howard Taft (whose accomplishments are so numerous, I bet you can't narrow them down and name even one).

Interestingly, much of the spark behind FDR's truly radical social agenda came from his intrepid wife, Eleanor - the First Lady, you'll recall, whom Hillary Clinton took as her role model (and was belittled for doing so). The second volume of historian Blanche Wiesen Cook's excellent biography of Eleanor chronicles FDR's reliance on his wife's ideas and intellect: "little of significance was achieved without her input," Cook states categorically, "and her vision shaped the best of his presidency."

It's a sad commentary on the state of women's rights in this country that 70 years after Eleanor moved into the White House, women must still content themselves with the First Lady spot instead of being able to gain the Oval Office. How many among us, for example, have taken Carol Moseley Braun seriously as a presidential contender? Her campaign has so little money the former senator reportedly drives herself to events on the campaign trail in a rental car. Yet of the 10 Democrats running for the White House, Moseley Braun is one of the most progressive; as an indicator, she's among the three who have supported equal marriage rights. Particularly striking is that Moseley Braun recently hired feminist leader (and out bisexual) Patricia Ireland as her campaign manager.

And once again this year, some of the Democratic candidates' wives are bolder and more outspoken than their husbands. I've been particularly impressed by Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean, who has refused to give up her medical practice to follow husband Howard around on the campaign trail, like other political wives do; her patients who are ill, she contends, need her. It makes me like Candidate Dean more because he is married to such a strong woman, whom he calls "a role model for America."

Also noteworthy is Teresa Heinz Kerry, who is in some ways a more interesting a figure than her husband, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Born in Mozambique, fluent in several languages, and trained as a U.N. translator, she's been an outspoken advocate for the environment and for the arts. She once considered a Senate run herself, after her first husband, Sen. John Heinz, a moderate Pennsylvania Republican, died in a plane crash. But she decided against it, concluding that "today's most creative thinking is not happening in Washington." Living proof of her statement is the guy who won Heinz's seat - Sen. Rick Santorum, of "man on dog" infamy.

In a strange way, we can glean some hope for the future of women's rights from these very examples. Even 10 years ago, it would not have been possible to conceive of a First Lady like Dr. Steinberg Dean, who expects to keep her day job even if her husband wins the general election. And 10 years ago, Hillary Clinton was being pilloried for taking an active role in her husband's administration instead of baking cookies. Now, according to a recent poll, George W. Bush is the most admired person in the country - but Sen. Clinton is second.

Paula Martinac is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author of seven books and editor in chief of Q Syndicate.

Previous editions
The top US stories that didn't make headlines [30/12/2003]



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