Politics & Policy

Desperate White House Wives

Angry, self-loathing, resentful, ungrateful Michelle and Hillary.

The Hillary and Michelle comparisons were inevitable: Ivy-educated superlawyers married to dreamy-eyed visionaries who aimed for the White House.

In every marriage, they say, one partner is the flower and the other the pot. Breaking stereotype, the women in both these cases have been the pots — the solid, grounded ones, while their men are les fleurs bending toward the light of public adulation.

Back home where women struggle to balance family, career, and other cliches, the wives pluck wilted petals from the floor where Mr. Wonderful has left them — unnoticed as usual — strewn as a bridal path lest his bare feet be bruised by the carpet’s pile.

The only thing is, Mr. Wonderful isn’t always so wunderbar when he’s not parceling loaves and fishes among the tear-drenched masses. If he’s Mr. Michelle, he’s “snore-y and stinky” in the morning, and otherwise thinks only of himself, as Obama’s wife has infamously said.

If he’s Mr. Hillary, well, America is familiar with his humanness. Today, Bill seeks atonement by trading places. Now he’s the pot and she’s the flower, if sometimes unconvincingly. When Hillary is on the stump, she still conveys pot-ness — a sturdy urn — while Bill can’t seem to shed his flower-ness. In a room together, the sun’s rays seek him, unfooled by the shift in roles.

And the women are peeved.

Beneath Michelle Obama’s attractive, best-dressed, six-feet-in-her-Jimmy-Choos, hyper-articulate, be-pearled and be-suited exterior is a kinda-angry woman. Undergirding Hillary’s “I’m-your-gal” campaign is a fury born of place-holding, of turn-waiting, of patient vigilance at a turnstile managed by morons.

Both women are keenly aware — as are their husbands — of their competence, accomplishments, and potential. They know they run the show, man the stopwatches, get the daughters squared away, manage the brush fires, get the bills paid, meals planned — while bringing down their own six-figure salaries — and still have to play wifey to the dude who is never surprised when matching socks materialize neatly joined in his bureau drawer.

While all those crowds whimper ‘n’ wail and reach to touch the hem of his raiments, she’s thinking: Oh, puh-leeze.

The world notices. (And the world infers.)

Hillary says she’s not a stand-by-your man sort of gal (Angry). You won’t catch her baking Toll House cookies (Self-loathing). Michelle says men always think of themselves first (Resentful). This is the first time Michelle has ever been proud of America (Ungrateful).

Are we harder on women than we are on men? Here’s a hint: If President Hillary Clinton were caught having an affair with a male intern her daughter’s age, would she ever be received again in public except for her own funeral?

Our critique of public wives isn’t a function of latent misogyny, as some suppose — or envy, jealousy, or any of the other sins we so easily ascribe to women. We pay attention because we’re sailing largely uncharted seas and curious to see how others navigate.

More than half of mothers with young children work outside the home today, compared to just 30 percent in the 1970s. As the number of women exceeds the number of men in college and, increasingly, in graduate schools, balancing career and family is more than an academic exercise.

How does one do it all?

Michelle and Hillary are today’s top doers — the Been There, Got the T-Shirt twins of having it all ways. They’ve both been blessed and cursed with similar good fortunes — elite educations and successful careers.

At the same time, both have played traditional supporting roles, largely occupying their husbands’ shadows. We want to know them, but not too much. We didn’t vote for them, yet we expect them to perform in certain approved ways: Supportive but not adoring; competent but not competitive; smart but wisest in womanly ways. That is, quiet-like.

Hillary and Michelle have changed the way we see political wives. These two aren’t comfortable in the shadows, nor are they quietly smart. Edgy and sassy are words women commonly used to describe Michelle. To men, pushy and angry sound truer.

Men want a president whose wife doesn’t seem to have him on a tight leash. Women want a president who treats his/her spouse as the equal partner he/she really is.

The challenge for ambitious public wives may not be balancing career and family after all. The bigger challenge may be surviving life as a flower miscast as a pot.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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