THE BLOG

Silda and Feminism

03/18/2008 11:23 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How independent of powerful men do women have to be?

If you're a feminist, do you have to trash the "Stand by Your Man" scenario?

And how far does illicit sex with a powerful man get women, anyhow?

The strained, pale face of Silda Wall Spitzer is etched in the memories of many women -- and men as well. She stood by the side of the New York governor as he admitted he had paid for sex through a prostitution ring. It's a sad and familiar story. The wronged wife loyally stands by as her miscreant and famous husband admits he's had an affair, paid for a prostitute, or either A) solicited a guy in an airport bathroom or B) just has a Wide Stance (Senator Larry Craig in a line that will live in infamy).

Some columnists and bloggers have suggested that it's time to end the loyal wife scenario, that cheated-on wives ought to bow out of this little drama, and what's more, bow out of the marriage as well. After all, It's the feminist thing to do, some say.

But feminism was, and is, all about women having choices, and since life is messy and complicated, it's hard to judge the choice another woman makes.

Silda Spitzer has three children with the governor. How do you simply rip out all those feelings for a man you love, who has fathered your children? Maybe you are thinking more about the children than about the man, standing by him so you can present a unified front to the world -- for their sake.

Silda Spitzer put her family first before. A Harvard law graduate, she left her position at the high-flying law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, to be a full-time mother and first lady of New York. "I felt very conflicted and emotional about leaving my job,'' she told Vogue magazine. ''It was not something I wanted to do, but I have never once doubted that it was the right decision for us. You don't want to give up your dreams, but you also have to confront the reality of your life. Ultimately, it was more important for me to have my family work."

The irony is, of course, that if Silda Spitzer had stayed in her high-powered job, critics would now be writing that if she'd been a stay-at-home-mom, more attentive to her hubby, he wouldn't have had to run around paying for sex.

It's a game in which women just can't win, because the needs, quirks and self absorption of powerful men is all about them, not their wives.

The question for the women in question is whether their husbands can really atone, change, and become the committed partners and fathers that women need and want. Some men can, and do, change. Others simply repeat their patterns, over and over again. We, outside the marriage, simply can't judge what is happening inside it.

At least, if the Spitzer marriage does break up, we know she will not be living on food stamps or chasing down her ex-hubby for child support. Harvard law grads don't become bag ladies.

Hillary Clinton famously stood by her man when Bill was running for president, and that's what saved him. A feisty wife who doesn't come off as a victim is worth her weight in gold to a political candidate. Then came Monica-gate, and once again, Hillary was the loyal wife. Many feminists were furious that she didn't dump Bill after that, but again, you have to be in her shoes to understand her. And if she decided that the marriage wasn't working all that well emotionally, but was working politically to her advantage, so what? Does anybody blame Eleanor Roosevelt because she stayed with FDR in a marriage that was not physically intimate, but which produced one of the most dynamic political teams in American history?

Men, after all, don't have to be in happy marriages to get elected president. Ike had a wartime affair, JFK ran around, Lincoln's wife had mental problems, and Dick and Pat Nixon did not seem to be pictures of emotional well-being.

And what of the "other" women in political scandals? What happens to them? Usually, they become famous for 15 minutes and are then forgotten. Does anyone remember Elizabeth Ray? She was the woman in a much-publicized sex scandal in 1976 that destroyed the career of influential congressman Wayne Hays (D-Ohio).

"I can't type, I can't file, I can't even answer the phone," said Ray, admitting that her real job in the U.S Congress was providing sexual favors to her boss. Another member of Congress, John Young of Texas, had a habit of hiring young, pretty and poor women from the south as his executive assistants. It was only after they took the job that these women found out that on late afternoons in the house office building, it wasn't dictation they were taking from the 69-year-old pol. Some of these women had kids to support, so they felt trapped. But one brave woman, Colleen Gardner, blew the whistle, not being able to stand the humiliation anymore. Young followed Hays out of the Congress.

Carole Tyler, the secretary (and mistress) of LBJ's top aide, Bobby Baker, became famous in the '60s as the lady with the bee-stung lips. She refused to give a senate committee information that would implicate Baker in financial misdeeds, believing that he would leave his wife and marry her. Baker claimed that she threatened suicide when he wouldn't dump his wife, and she died not long afterwards in a plane crash in Ocean City Maryland, near a hotel owned by Baker.

Monica Lewinsky was the most famous woman in the world for a while, and now is studying at the London School of Economics. Donna Rice, the "party girl" in the Gary Hart scandal, made some money from hawking a line of jeans, then turned her life around, became a Christian, and is now an advocate fighting porn directed at children. Maybe Lewinsky can also find another non-scandal life.

The call girl in the Spitzer scandal, Ashley Alexandra Dupre, has about a two-minute window to profit from the scandal. She's being asked for pose (for a million bucks) for Hustler and the songs she has put up on her website are being downloaded at a rapid rate. But rarely do the young women involved in these political scandals prosper from their fame. Perhaps the saddest of all is Christine Keeler, the beautiful young call girl who became internationally famous in the 1960s sex scandal in Britain. She was having an affair with John Profumo, the British Secretary of State for War, arranged by the notorious procurer Dr. Stephen Ward. Her picture adorned magazine covers around the world, but her fame brought her nothing but two failed marriages and a lifetime of financial struggle.

Whether it's the wife or the other woman, it's the female sex that suffers most. The famous men may lose their pubic offices, but often have made enough connections to prosper in the private sector. (Boys will be boys, after all.) Gary Hart reconciled with his wife, Lee, and is in great demand as a consultant. Bobby Baker was sentenced to three years in federal prison for fraud but served only 16 months. A wealthy man, Baker wrote the book Wheeling and Dealing: Confessions of a Capitol Hill Operator (1978).

Larry Craig, of the wide stance, remains in the senate, though he has pledged to quit. John Profumo devoted the rest of his life to charity work, and was lionized by Tony Blair on his death in 2006. Does anyone imagine that Eliot Spitzer, a brilliant lawyer and prosecutor, will not be in demand in the private sector when his legal troubles are over?

Too often, however, the women don't get second acts. As Christine Keeler put it, "Even a criminal has the right to a new life, but they made sure I did not have that. They just didn't stop calling me a prostitute for ever and ever."

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women" (University Press of New England.)