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A Political 'Good' Wife No More

Eliot Spitzer and his wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, are divorcing after more than two decades of marriage. This has Hinda Mandell rethinking the sex-scandal script. In this March 12, 2008 file photo, New York Gov. Spitzer announces his resignation amid a prostitution scandal as his wife Silda stands by at the governor’s office in New York. (Stephen Chernin/AP)
Eliot Spitzer and his wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, are divorcing after more than two decades of marriage. This has Hinda Mandell rethinking the sex-scandal script. In this March 12, 2008 file photo, New York Gov. Spitzer announces his resignation amid a prostitution scandal as his wife Silda stands by at the governor’s office in New York. (Stephen Chernin/AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Some wives can’t catch a public break.

I’m thinking of Silda Spitzer.

I woke Christmas morning to an email from my aunt with a link to the story that the Spitzer marriage was no more.

“Merry Christmas!” she wrote.

I felt a whoosh of adrenalin in the pit of my stomach, the physiological companion to my mind going, “What?! I can’t believe this actually happened — nearly six years after their unified press conferences, where Silda became eponymous with the hit TV show“The Good Wife.”

The Spitzers were my favorite scandal couple. I cut my academic teeth studying media coverage of them for my 2011 dissertation on political wives whose husbands were caught in flagrante delicto. I always liked the fact that the Spitzers remained married after so much disruption to their life. It showed that marriage is mysterious to all but the two who are legally bound to each other.

But now the mysterious glue that held their union intact has dissolved and, WHAT? — Spitzer already has a girlfriend?!

Gah. I felt sick. Again Silda gets the short end of the stick. She’s the wife who stands by her man only to get publicly stung again years later. (“But hopefully she’s making out alright in private!” I optimistically write back to my aunt.)

Political wives are constantly held to a double bind in media reports. They’re criticized for feminine meekness if they attend their husband’s hastily-scripted press conference to address his sexual betrayal. And they’re castigated as unsupportive and mannish if they don’t.

To many casual observers of scandal, I’m sure the Spitzer divorce seems like one big “Duh.” Who couldn’t have seen that coming! But as someone who intimately studied media coverage of them I always felt that even if news stories never alluded to it, there must have been private negotiations between the Mr. and Mrs. that allowed husband and wife to remain together nearly six year after Eliot dragged Silda through the mud. Maybe it was a house in France. Or maybe it was divorce on Silda’s terms when the time was right. In moments of boredom over the past few years I liked to ponder what their private negotiations must have been like. Such is the life of a scandologist.

Now I’m left mulling the contents of my dusty dissertation, remembering that out of the seven political wives from 2004 to 2009 that I studied, Silda represented the perfect median. Three came before her (Dina Matos McGreevey, Wendy Vitter, Suzanne Craig) and three followed (Terry Mahoney, Darlene Ensign and Jenny Sanford). Media coverage of scandalized political wives is rarely kind, but there were more unflattering physical descriptions of Silda in the press than the six other political wives. Perhaps it’s because members of the press reached a certain scandal fatigue with Silda and couldn’t take one more wife standing by one more man. Or maybe they were just really ticked at Eliot and took it out on his wife. The wife always bears so much of the burden for her husband’s actions in news accounts of scandal. At press conferences she’s the evidence of the husband’s sexual betrayal, a misguided signpost indicating that maybe if hubby got more loving at home he wouldn’t have to go roaming for his kicks.

It’s hard out there for a wife.

“Tear-stained, puffy and frozen in a mask of anguish, Silda Wall Spitzer’s was the face that launched a million opinions,” wrote a reporter for the Albany Times Union on March 13, 2008, the day after Spitzer resigned from his governorship. The headline of the article announced, “A woman betrayed with a future to ponder.” I guess she’s been pondering for almost six years now.

Silda was “ashen-faced,” reported the New York Times. The Washington Post observed her “lifeless eyes,” and her “drained visage.” Really? Can you imagine how you’d look and feel if you found out your spouse had been sleeping with a roster of coiffed escorts? I imagine my visage would be pretty drained too. But it’s never polite to state the obvious.

Political wives are constantly held to a double bind in media reports. They’re criticized for feminine meekness if they attend their husband’s hastily-scripted press conference to address his sexual betrayal. And they’re castigated as unsupportive and mannish if they don’t. But the Spitzers seemed to endure the brutal spotlight. Despite Eliot’s betrayal of his better half, they gave me hope that marriage can be repaired after a detour through hell — perhaps not made whole again but maybe patched over just enough to endure.

Of the seven political marriages I studied, three of the couples remain married post-scandal. But only the Spitzers got divorced so many years after the husband’s scandal.

What’s more typical, according to my research at least, is that if the wife calls it quits on her husband it’s within months of his scandalous behavior (see Dina Matos McGreevey, Terry Mahoney and Jenny Sanford). So my hope for the continuation of the Spitzer conjugal state prevailed since 2008. Until now.

I wished the post-script to the Christmas morning headline could have been different for Silda. Something like: “Silda steps out with new man after news of divorce.” (Subhead: “Eliot grabs McDonald’s for Christmas meal alone.”) I never met the Spitzers but that doesn’t matter. When you study scandal you quickly realize that survivors become prototypes for all of us. They embody our fears of humiliation and betrayal. Their private experiences are ripped from them and become the basis of the barbs we throw at our spouses (Who are you always texting?!). The cultural script of scandal embodies the social norms that so often prevail — if not in our private lives then in our broader ecology of gender relations.

It’s not that Silda needs a knight in shining armor to rescue her. I’m just rooting for her to come out publicly shining. A change in the scandal script would be a nice disruption to the regularly-scheduled scandal programming of politics.


Related:

Hinda Mandell Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Hinda Mandell, a Boston-area native, is associate professor in the School of Communication at RIT in Rochester, New York.

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