by Faith Childs | bio

It may be that Maria Shriver, former journalist, author and self-described "general assignment first lady," was correct when she asserted yesterday at a conference of candidates’ spouses in California that the "days of the ceremonial first lady" are bygone.

According to Shriver, who is married to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, spouses "have a role to play in influencing elected officials."

One would have been hard pressed to believe that Shriver’s sentiments were shared by the five candidates’ spouses who appeared yesterday in Long Beach. Each of the women — and they were all women — seemed to go out of her way to declare how little her own opinions mattered to her spouse. It was as if advisers had coached each one on how not to be assertive, opinionated, or to even sound as if she played any significant role in her husband’s life.

How scary is it that women feel the need to compete to be the most subordinate and least influential. When does the bake-off start? I doubt that male spouses of female candidates would feel any such inclination.

Just listen to some of the remarks. Hewing safely to the domestic sphere, Jeri Kehn Thompson talked of diapers (I’m hard pressed to believe that Mrs. T. is doing a great deal of the heavy lifting here) and sharing views with her husband on the campaign only if related to family matters.

"I’m not even qualified to do any of the other stuff," Thompson said of campaign strategy, adding at another point that she is "absolutely" scared of the campaign.

"I’m afraid of embarrassing Fred," Thompson said. "That would be my big fear."

Recall that weeks back she was sold to the public as an intelligent political strategist and consultant, at least in part to reduce the focus on being termed a "trophy wife." And in a recent interview with a hometown paper, she discussed helping her husband transition to the role of presidential candidate.

When Shriver asked how the women had changed their husbands’ minds on any policy issue, none  offered an example.

Elizabeth Edwards, who has been outspoken in her views on almost all matters, including same-sex marriage, said, "Anytime you say something, it gets exploded into a bigger story … that becomes ‘you are masterminding the campaign.’"

"All you’re doing is expressing what’s best for your spouse as a spouse," she suggested disingenuously. Sounds like a hedged bet to me.

Ann Romney offered that she spoke up on issues of "scheduling," but not on "strategy."

"I don’t have any input on the strategy or the messaging," she said. Weak tea indeed.   

Citing her husband’s busy schedule, Cindy McCain said that "the last thing I was going to do was to talk about issues with him" when he came home on a recent Friday.

Even Michelle Obama, normally feisty and outspoken, took refuge in domestic matters, downplaying her role in the campaign. Obama has held forth on so many issues in different venues (on Oprah — and in the November issue of O — as well as Essence, for starters), that her attempts to appear less concerned with substantive campaign matter didn’t ring true. 

It boggles the mind that none of these experienced, intelligent women dared to admit playing a substantive role in their husbands’ campaigns. Are we to believe that voters are so frightened of assertive women that the spouses of the candidates must downplay their roles in order not to seem intimidating? Could it be that the notion of real partnerships between married couples is a foreign idea to most Americans? Or is it that real men should be decisive and not accept advice from their wives?

Whatever the reason for this female reticence, calling the meeting "Women as Architects of Change" is a bit preposterous. Seems more like: "The Master Builder Let Me Speak." 

I hope Maria Shriver is right that the old "seen but not heard" first lady icon is a thing of the past. If yesterday’s forum was a sample of what the public can expect from the wife of the new president, I’m unconvinced.

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  • Laura Sillerman October 25, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    Look at the juxtapostion here. A former first lady speaks out about her proposed health care policy in her candidacy for the presidency. Potential first ladies shrink in trepidation of being thought to be involved in their husbands’ campaigns.
    Is there something going on here? Are these women being coached to be less active in order to help their husbands distance and differentiate themselves from an ambitious woman? Paranoia or possibility? Let’s talk.