Communication Currents

Hillary and Bill Clinton

The Good Wives (and Husband) of the 2016 Elections

December 1, 2016
Political Communication

The 2016 elections have come to a close, but the campaigns have left plenty of fodder for Communication scholars. In a recent essay, Roseann M. Mandziuk of Texas State University examines the rhetoric of 2016 presidential candidate spouses. Specifically, she explores the power of the cultural expectations of female spouses as “the good wife,” and how those expectations differed for prospective “first gentleman” Bill Clinton. The widely accepted values, ideals, and myths that define “the good wife,” she argues, intersect with rhetorics of nativism, classism, and sexuality “to constitute powerful boundaries governing speech and silence.”

Typically, voters look at candidate spouses to judge the personal character of the presidential candidates. According to Republican strategist Fred Davis, spouses are “a window on the soul of their mate. They help voters see what kind of father they are, what kind of husband, how they live their lives.”

The actions and rhetoric of the spouses need to fulfill the “good wife” role, and, Mandziuk argues, their campaign appearances and enactments shape public perceptions and understandings of gender roles. “While it may be easy to dismiss the 2016 presidential spouses as merely the most recent models of these ideal types, the particular players in this race invite a closer scrutiny.” Mandziuk’s essay examines the actions of Heidi Cruz, Jane Sanders, Columba Bush, Melania Trump, and Bill Clinton in the pre-primary phase of the 2016 election cycle.

What Is the “Good Wife?”

According to the author, a “good wife” is one who meets societal expectations for the potential first spouse’s “intelligible gender enactment.” This “good wife” sublimates her desires in support of her husband’s political aspirations. Mandziuk quotes Melissa Deem, who explains that the “good wife” is “the decorous woman who always knows her place, both in public and in relation to her husband, [which] is what undergirds the masculinist regime.”

Further, the author argues, the spouse of a presidential candidate needs to exemplify proper behavior and model the traditional idea of U.S. womanhood. Recent studies analyzing the scrutiny of Hillary Clinton show the rhetorical limitations that have faced women who negotiated the prescriptions of the first lady role. Before she was a presidential candidate, voters and political commentators perceived Clinton as transgressing the rules for this role. The scrutiny of Michelle Obama shows that people demand that she perform the traditional feminine script, and also calls attention to the ways in which this discourse about the role of a first lady intersects with cultural dictates of whiteness.

The emergence of the particular cast of spouses in the 2016 race threatened to destabilize the cultural parameters that in the past have defined “Mr. and Mrs. America.”

The Domestic “Good Wife”

One of the chief dictates of gender ideology is that the political spouse must be the picture of domestic and familial life that certifies the hegemonic masculinity of her husband. In 1992, Clinton faced widespread criticism after saying that she could have stayed home to bake cookies and have tea, but instead decided to continue pursuing her professional goals.  To avoid the public punishment that Clinton received after her statement, even the most professionally accomplished and competent female spouses conform to traditional expectations. For example, Mandziuk notes that Heidi Cruz, a Harvard Business School graduate, took an unpaid leave of absence from her job as an investment manager at Goldman Sachs. Jane Sanders has held several leadership roles, including president of Goddard College and Burlington College, and arguably was the most politically active and experienced spouse in the presidential election. Mandziuk writes:

Though neither woman embodied the stereotype of grace and fashion sense that has dominated expectations for First Lady comportment since Jackie Kennedy, both Cruz and Sanders articulated their spousal role through the frames of domesticity and submission by explicitly defining their central function in the campaign as working to soften their husband’s public image and offering unqualified support for his decision to seek the presidency.

While neither woman delivered a solo speech that garnered national media attention during the surfacing phase of her husband’s campaign, both were prominent presences in the early caucus and primary states and weren’t afraid to share their perspectives with the press about their role as spouse. Both women were careful to enact the role of dutiful and deferent spouse. Each woman’s performance underwent a transition from the initial months of the campaign, from independent woman to devoted wife.

Silence of Non-Native Born Spouses

Melania and Donald Trump and family

Melania Trump and Columba Bush, political spouses who were not born in the United States, represent a different violation of the hegemonic script for a presidential spouse that “destabilizes the expectation that the first family must serve as the distinctly American ideal,” Mandziuk points out. The rhetoric of nativism, she writes, is a fundamental aspect of what defines the presidency. “In the 2016 presidential campaign, the question of whether Columba Bush or Melania Trump might occupy the White House exposed the dominant expectation not only that the first family be white, elite, and well mannered, but [also] that their Americanness also be unimpeachable.”

Both Trump and Bush were largely absent from active roles in their husbands’ campaigns, rendering them functionally silent. Particularly in the context of this election, where immigration was a major issue, both women needed to remain unseen and unheard because they “served as inconvenient and ironic indexes” to their husbands’ nativist sentiments.

The Good Husband

The question of how and when prospective “first gentleman” Bill Clinton would officially surface in the 2016 election was the subject of much speculation. Into late October, he had not made any solo appearances on behalf of Hillary Clinton, even though campaign leaders urged her to use him in a more prominent public role. Their challenge was to give him a role that was neither “too big” nor “too small.”

According to the author, the “prospective first gentleman” easily retained his role as patriarch of the family and dominant marriage partner without compromising his masculinity. On one occasion, Bill Clinton assured an audience in Exeter, NH, that Hillary has “proved that she knows how to get things done,” but then undercut her achievements by saying that “she spearheaded the development of the Iran sanctions and got China and Russia to sign off on them. I didn’t think she could do that.” This statement, sealed with a laugh from Clinton and his audience, asserted his position as the dominant marriage partner, while the audience acknowledged Hillary Clinton’s role as his “little woman.”

Certainly, Mandziuk concludes, “the exposure of the ideologies that frame our notions of the presidency and our understanding of what properly constitutes the first family is an essential initial step toward broadening the national imagination and engendering cultural transformation.

About the author (s)

Roseann M. Mandziuk

Texas State University


Roseann M. Mandziuk