Earlier this month, a miniscandal erupted over a story with a lurid headline: “The Lesbian Past of Bill de Blasio’s Wife.” The central thesis seemed to be that Chirlane McCray (a.k.a. Mrs. de Blasio) is somehow duplicitous, because as a married woman with two children, she once identified as a lesbian.
Anyone who lived through the sexual revolution or received a liberal arts degree in the last 30 years might have failed to grasp the inherent conflict. Nevertheless, the sensational article strongly implied the existence of a public fraud.
The latest “scandal” may have been about sexuality, but it speaks to the broader public controversy about women’s role in society. There remains today a strict unchanging script for political wives, which is largely out of sync with the reality of women’s lives. Willingly or not, women in public life are often reduced to caricatures.
We don’t hear a lot from Michelle Obama about what it was like for a Harvard-educated lawyer to serve as the primary income earner while trying to co-parent two children. However, we do know that America’s “Mom in Chief” considers child rearing her most important role. While advancing women’s issues and women for political office, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand always reminds us that she is a mother. And female candidates typically go out of their way to assure the public that while they may be professionally ambitious, their first priority is their children. Do we ever hear male candidates or elected officials explain their work by reaffirming their role as parents? Never.
The approved script for political spouses is even more one-dimensional, and those who depart from it face punishment: Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean received harsh scrutiny for prioritizing her professional life over her husband’s campaign rallies. Rosalynn Carter raised eyebrows by carrying a briefcase and attending Cabinet meetings. And of course Hillary Clinton achieved notoriety for dismissing the notion that she should be baking cookies rather than participating as an advisor to her husband’s presidential campaign. Ms. McCray is only the latest in a long line of women who fail to meet the casting standards for the role.
There is no adequate public discourse to address the complexity of women’s lives. When Hilary Rosen accused Anne Romney of never having “worked a day in her life,” the basic truth of her message was drowned out by the rush to deflect her admittedly callous choice of words. Rosen, a gay parent with a job, was trying to say that mothers who have never worked outside the home don’t have the same experience as those who do. The point was lost, and we never returned to the debate.
In a country where the conversation is so fraught, it’s no wonder we lack the social infrastructure of our postindustrial peers, such as paternity leave or state-sponsored child care. Instead we have an awkward vocabulary with terms such as “working mother,” which appears right next to “urban youth” in the lexicon of political euphemisms.
Far from the fraud she’s supposedly perpetrated—masquerading as a wife and mother for 20 years—Ms. McCray’s front-page declaration in a 1979 edition of Essence magazine (“I Am a Lesbian”) represents the universal fact that things change. What hasn’t changed nearly enough is the public discourse and social structures to accommodate the facts of modern life.
It’s not that Ms. McCray doesn’t fit the role, it’s that the role no longer fits at all.
Political spouses, like women in general, have moved beyond conventional gender roles; they’re leading three-dimensional lives. According to census figures released in the same news cycle as the de Blasio story, women now account for a third of the nation’s lawyers and doctors, up from 23 percent a decade ago. And a recent study by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University found women’s representation in state legislatures has been steadily rising to about 30 percent as well. These numbers represent progress, but don’t reflect population statistics or even graduation rates for medical and law schools, where women currently make up 50 percent of the class. Yet rather than address these problems, we waste our time talking about who Ms. McCray shared her bed with 30 years ago.
That’s the scandal.
Alexis Grenell is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. She handles nonprofit and political clients.