The Art of the Political Wife

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Hillary Clinton in Vermeer’s “Woman weighing pearls”

Political wives may be easy pickings for a joke or two in the press but the death last week of Nancy Reagan, the recent new series release of the House of Cards on Netflix, and the high profile campaigning of Mrs Clinton in the US, give us a real reason to look at the role of the spouse in a ministerial marriage.

Power Crazy Bitch

Live with those in the upper echelons of government, and the power will rub off. Soon like a nippy party drug; the desire for political influence becomes a controlling need.
Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 5.58.28 PMThat’s, perhaps, the reason for the storytelling in the US version of House of Cards.  First Lady, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright Penn) is increasingly stealing the show. Indeed her manipulative maneuverings to gain authority in her husband’s political arena are staggering to watch.  Claire is a controlling power-bitch; a type of political wife that the media would like us to believe is representative of the type. And this series, she’s more Machiavellian than Machiavelli. This is a loveless, friendless, relentless quest for political power. The same kind of character (but toned down; scheming and shrewd less narcissistic) was portrayed  in the 2013 ITV series, The Politician’s Husband , starring Emily Watson and David Tennant in the lead roles.  There’s power-play too in The Good Wife, (Julianne Margolis) half-way through it’s latest series on Channel 4.

All very timely then, as we watch the real drama play in the American pre-election race. Hillary Clinton
seems to have been preparing for this moment for decades and soon she will know if the top dog role she supported and maintained for so long (whilst also yearning for it) is her destiny too. (Art imitating life? ). Despite the makeovers, or because of them, most of the media is rather harsh on her – for lacking compassion or having a tangible agenda. The official documentary isn’t sympathetic either. Hillary, the movie

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There’s history to these modern politicos though. The 20th century is littered with wives who had razor sharp political ambitions. The most infamous is probably  “Madame Mao,” the Communist Chairman’s wife, Jiang Qing. Her power-crazed, bloodthirsty part in the Cultural Revolution (which she denied) is retold in book form, Becoming Madame Mao and on screen, Mao’s Last Dancer. “The Iron Butterfly” Imelda Marcos, the wife who lived in a bubble of grandiosity. Renowned for her shoe collection, love of shopping and rule by fear. The film of her life is, fittingly, in her own remorseless words. And then there’s Winnie Mandela, whose fall from grace into a pool of bitterness, tracks against her husband, Nelson’s, beatification. Her life story has inspired books, films and even an opera.

Domestic Doll

The flip side to the power wife is the Simpering Sue . The woman of little voice but fair of face; the gala opener, the cake maker, the husband gracer.  House of Cards was originally aired as a British TV series in 1990. You may remember Ian Richardson’s unscrupulous Frances Urquhart with the line; “You might well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.” His wife, Elizabeth Urquhart, played a backseat role, nowhere near as Queenly as Claire Underwood. Whilst Juliet Stevenson portrayal of  The Politician’s Wife  shows how damaging the exposure is on someone who just want to  lead a “normal” life, as her marriage unravels in a bright political glare.

The domestic example has provided ripe material for satirical representation. Norma Major’s seeming preference for homely pursuits was mercilessly portrayed in the Spitting Image sketch, “peas are good tonight dear”.

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Photo: Spitting Image


For dedication to family and good manners Barbara Bush has earnt the moniker “Grandmother of America”. She’s been represented as both down-to-earth… and scary (The Simpsons 1990).


The Real Wives of Cabinet County

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These control freaks or  “charmingly nice”caricature wives may fit fiction but they are out of step with the real spouses. The role of the modern political wife  is a lot more nuanced than TV and Film like to represent. What’s become evident, by the quantity of press articles, is that these women are under intense public scrutiny – pretty much all the time. This year it’s the turn of those Stateside, last year it was British political wives who found themselves centre of attention. The press coverage in the lead up to the General Election of 2015, must have felt relentless.  From the frivolous to the more serious; the wives had to stand up to much critical examination.

The real life of a political wife then, looks rather more fascinating than the nasty or pitiful versions we’ve been offered so far. Time then for the role to be shown with a dose of reality – wouldn’t it be preferable to Keep Up With The Camerons over the Kardashians?


Further Reading: 

Other interesting political wives include;  Clemmie Churchill, the force behind the mighty Churchillian years. Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, a founding member of the Bolshevik party and active agitator and Corazon Aquino who following her husband’s assassination, stepped up to take on the Marcos’ regime and lead the Philippines towards democracy. Another famous political widow; Jackie Kennedy whose glamour and charm belied a life of troubles.  Right now the world is watching Grace Mugabe, as her aged husband’s health begins to fail.

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