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How We Regard Huma Abedin, And Why It Matters

Huma Abedin is pictured on Oct. 22, 2015 on Capitol Hill. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Huma Abedin is pictured on Oct. 22, 2015 on Capitol Hill. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Cuckold. We all know the term used to describe a man whose wife has committed adultery. But do you know what to call a woman whose husband has been unfaithful to her?

I didn’t either. We haven’t needed to know the generic word, not when we’ve had more personal, more sensational names to attach to the concept. Names like Jen, Silda, Elizabeth, Hillary and now (yet again) Hillary’s close political aide and adviser, Huma. After the New York Post published text and images from her husband, Anthony Weiner’s latest round of sexual Twitter exchanges with a woman he met online, Huma Abedin has announced her separation from the disgraced former congressman and New York City mayoral candidate.

I had to Google the answer to my question. According to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, a betrayed wife is a “cuckquean.” It’s a term that Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize and insists I’m misspelling, and that other dictionaries describe as “obsolete.”

I wonder if we conflate commitment with weakness, not just Huma Abedin’s commitment to her husband, but Hillary Clinton’s commitment to Huma.

In a culture in which we still generally at least pay lip service to monogamy, why don’t we have a readily available term to describe a betrayed woman? Is it because we’ve historically just assumed that philandering husbands are the norm and it’s only a roaming wife who’s an anomaly? Or because, typical or not, the status of betrayed wife just isn’t worthy of distinction, just isn’t important enough to merit its own term?

Unlike “cuckold,” which used to carry an implicit tone of scorn, the definition of cuckquean is purely descriptive. But ironically, one “success” of the women’s movement is that these days, having an adulterous wife now makes a man more an object of sympathy than of scorn, while staying married to an unfaithful husband now subjects a woman to more derision than compassion. In a man, it is seen as a sign of commitment, in a woman a troubling lack of self-respect. But in both cases, tolerating infidelity is seen as essentially feminine -- a quality now admirable in men and a sign of retrograde weakness in women.

“Poor, poor Huma,” wrote Kat, a Millennial colleague of mine, a woman in her early 30s. “I’m glad she’s finally pulling the trigger — I want so badly to respect her but it’s been hard (though I get it… kinda).” I’m with her, and trying to figure out why.

In this July 23, 2013 file photo, Huma Abedin, alongside her husband, then-New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, speaks during a news conference in New York. (Kathy Willens/AP)
In this July 23, 2013 file photo, Huma Abedin, alongside her husband, then-New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, speaks during a news conference in New York. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Anthony Weiner’s compulsive self-exposure, both literal and metaphorical, blazes a uniquely destructive path. Not only did he essentially cheat on his wife, but he did it repeatedly. Not only did he do it on Twitter, but in a documentary for which he allegedly did not obtain Huma’s permission. And not only did he do it randomly, but also knowingly with a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, someone with a clear and obvious motive to publicize their exchanges. Beyond narcissistic, it’s hard not to see his behavior as actively hostile.

But how should we regard his wife’s?

“After long and painful consideration and work on my marriage, I have made the decision to separate from my husband,” Huma wrote in a statement. “Anthony and I remain devoted to doing what is best for our son, who is the light of our life.”

Can it be that simple? Is it possible that like so many women in difficult marriages, she loved a deeply flawed man, tried to honor her promises to him, and sought to keep him as an active and engaged father to her son (or at least did until their 5-year-old showed up in one of Weiner’s texts sleeping next to his sexting and aroused father)? Or does her visibility and status as a trusted aide to another high-profile (and more reviled) woman preclude such straightforward interpretation?

As I try to unravel this knot of conflicting responses, I wonder if we conflate commitment with weakness, not just Huma Abedin’s commitment to her husband, but Hillary Clinton’s commitment to Huma.

We need to remind ourselves that sisterhood is powerful only as long as compassion is.

Certainly Donald Trump does. As usual, he has lost no time in spinning someone else’s misfortune into an opportunity for mud-slinging and self-aggrandizement. “I only worry for the country in that Hillary Clinton was careless and negligent in allowing Weiner to have such close proximity to highly classified information,” he wrote. “Who knows what he learned and who he told? It’s just another example of Hillary Clinton’s bad judgment. It is possible that our country and its security have been greatly compromised by this.”

By that standard, we should all be alarmed by Trump’s disclosing everything he’s learned in his national security briefing to his wife Melania, who probably illegally worked in this country without the proper visa. (Oh, did I say “probably”? Yes, but by Trump standards, “probably” — even “possibly” — is enough to fire up the slander machine). But of course we’re not fretting about that. What Donald tells Melania is, and should be, the least of our fears.

No, this episode underscores what should truly worry us: the sublimated misogyny this campaign is unleashing, and not just in Trump supporters.

Huma’s humiliation will once again quickly fade from our consciousness. But I hope the self-scrutiny and unease it’s eliciting in so many women will stick around for a while. We need to remind ourselves that sisterhood is powerful only as long as compassion is. Maybe it will even help us to forge a new archetype. As Kat, my Millennial friend said after further reflection, “I’m just excited to see her grow into her own public person/persona apart from the scandal and her role as the face of ‘grit your teeth stand by your man.’ Smart, capable, beautiful, SINGLE woman as the president’s right hand is such a better story.”

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery. By day, she leads the product innovation team for C Space, a Boston-based consumer collaboration company.

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