Just when you’d thought we’d heard every hacky Monica Lewinsky joke there was to be made, Bill Clinton and his indiscretions (and more serious charges of sexual assault) are in the spotlight. In three of the last four Democratic debates, the former president has been the subject of questions, from goofy questions about floral arrangements to accusatory ones about his sexual transgressions. Of course, Bill Clinton is not a candidate in this race, so it’s all about using his personal failings to cast aspersions on his wife and her candidacy.
In an examination of the Clintons and the Cosbys, Ann Friedman looks at the way marriage has been historically structured to favor the needs and ambitions of men. She says about Camille Cosby:
Yet the woman who is being asked to offer testimony and render judgment on those stories is one whose marriage began in a wholly different era, one in which the dependency relationship between men and women very often left wives at social, economic, familial, and certainly public disadvantage. As recently as a few decades ago, marriage was built on expectations that women give up some part of themselves — their educations, their own professional aims, their choice of where to settle, their names — in order to form legal alliances with men on whom they would then, necessarily, become dependent. Husbands were the centers and wives were supposed to work around them, in reaction to them: to tame them, domesticate them, prop them up, offer them emotional support, raise their families, clean their houses, often to provide them free ideas for which the men might receive paychecks.
It was a pretty raw deal. And perhaps cruelest of all the inequities of traditionally unequal marriage was that while the successes of the husband, no matter how enabled by the labor and sacrifice or intellectual contributions of the wife, never really accrued directly to the wife, the failures of the husband, especially and damnably those failures that took place outside the purview of the marriage, somehow redounded more seriously to her.
This has implications for both Hillary Clinton and Cosby in the pressure they have been facing in the public eye:
But the position she is being put in is emblematic of the double binds placed on wives in all kinds of circumstances. Husbands act; wives react to them. Husbands behave poorly; people look to wives for explanations of why. Wives pay prices for goods they never bought; they do time in publicity hell for actions they never took; they receive judgments for crimes they did not commit. They are offered impossible choices: Do they condemn their partners and thereby destroy the legacies and legitimacy they have helped to build, and if they do not, do they become culpable in those partners’ misdeeds?
In Saturday’s debate, Bernie Sanders deftly handled a question about Bill Clinton, condemning the question and expressing his desire to debate Clinton on the issues. Aside from the offensiveness of the obsession with her husband, these lines of inquiry also take away focus from issues we need to hear these candidates talking about, as Rebecca Traister writes:
There was a question, directed at Hillary, about the role her husband, former president Bill Clinton, would play in her administration, and one directed at Bernie about what he thought about Bill Clinton’s past sexual indiscretions. If you include the previous debate’s question about whether Hillary would have her husband do flower-arranging as First Gentleman, that makes three questions in four debates that somehow relate to the masculinity of a guy who wasn’t even on the stage, but not one about the millions of Americans who experience restricted access to legal abortion services, many of them Americans who also have limited access to sex-education programs and affordable contraception, not to mention the jobs, educations, state benefits, affordable child care, and early schooling options that would make decisions about if, how, and under what circumstances to start or grow a family more just.
There’s also plenty of room for tough questions for Clinton on some of the key concerns facing voters. I for one would like to hear her pressed on those speaking fees from Wall Street banks or her hawkish position on Iran while we’re in the midst of the most productive diplomacy with the country in decades.
Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton as a candidate, you can recognize that this fixation on her husband and attempts to define her based on his failures is unfair and sexist. As Friedman writes:
Michelle Goldberg wrote last week in Slate that “it would be a profound sexist irony if these accusations, having failed to derail Bill Clinton’s political career, came back to haunt his wife.”
It’s true and horrible. Although it might not be ironic so much as symptomatic of exactly the dynamics that have placed men at the center — of marriages, of power, of politics — for the whole of this country’s history, while wives have been kept at the margins.