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Is it still politic to play the good wife?

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Jackie Gregory
WVoN co-editor

“The great value of wives, prime minister” mused Judge Leveson this week at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.

It was an off-the-cuff remark, and possibly judiciously sarcastic, but had it appeared in a Jane Austen novel, scholars would describe it as perfectly crafted, weighted with class and precisely pinpointing the place of women in society.

But this is 2012 and the prime minister is David Cameron, who had to ask partner Samantha Cameron to consult their weekend diary (yes, we all have one, it’s called the kitchen calendar in our house) to see how many times he had enjoyed a “country supper” with former News International executive Rebekah Brooks.

Too many, she could have curtly replied, but no, Mrs Cameron as the PM referred to her, was able to help him out of the frying pan.

After she had consulted her diary, her husband was able to clarify that he and Brooks had met every six weeks, and not more frequently. It was then that the judge made the remark that has attracted much comment.

Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail mused: “Yikes. Harriet Harman and the sisterhood may not approve of that remark. I do hope the good Lord Justice is not subject to a class action complaint for sexism.”

It’s obvious that neither the judge nor Cameron nor Brooks, a former tabloid editor, realised that country supper  – words used in a text by Brooks to Cameron – has a totally different meaning in today’s street language, being slang for oral sex on a female.

And so through linguistics, the clubby culture and remoteness of the British ruling elite are exposed.

Cameron consulting Mrs Cameron firmly underlines her role as “the good wife”.

And it seems, in Britain at least, most MPs aspire to have one, even the gay ones.

It’s this concept that sickened Tanya Gold who wrote in The Guardian: “How I would love an inquiry into how politicians treat their wives, how they swap access for favours, how they beg them to dumb down, down, all the way to the glove drawer.

“The good wife is neat, smiling and ubiquitous, performing her role as professional tea caddy and shock absorber for her male … It is a tedious narrative but politicians need the vision of the happy woman as they harm women and their families elsewhere.”

It brings back uncomfortable memories of Judith Mellor, a couple of decades back, being forced to stand by the country gate smiling after husband David Mellor, then Tory Minister for Sport, was revealed to be having an affair.

Norma Major stayed quiet, in public at least, after John, then prime minister, had a fling with Edwina Currie. Even Sarah Brown was called in to speak up for Gordon to try and humanise his image.

Note the backlash against Cherie Booth which is still ongoing, because she failed to be a demure good wife to Tony Blair, and instead had her own career and identity. Sally Bercow, the wife of the speaker of the House of Commons, faces similar scrutiny.

Yet Naomi Wolf detects a change – on the Continent at least. While Mrs Cameron may be busy listing her husband’s supper dates, and Mrs Obama swaps a law career for growing veg in the garden, there are partners of politicians in other countries who are refusing to toe the line.

Wolf points out that the French president, the German president and the mayor of New York are not married to their partners – and no-one seems to care.

Wolf says: “Smart women may be unwilling to marry high-profile political men these days, owing to the tremendous potential downside. Other domestic arrangements might be easier than taking the matrimonial plunge, with its prospect of thankless exposure in the event of a scandal.”

Another reason is generational change with an expectation that women will have their own careers. Wolf argues this helps diminish the fear in some voters’ eyes that adoring good wives are the power behind the throne, unelected and unaccountable.

If a wife is too busy with her own career to get involved, this diminishes her power in the eyes of some electorate.

Wolf concludes: “The adoring political wife was always more caricature than character. Now, fortunately, she can finally retire.”

If Mrs Cameron does decide to step away, then she had better leave the weekend diary on Dave’s desk.

  1. vicki wharton says:

    God, I’d forgotten what a provocative twat Quentin Letts is. Half the problem is that equality is only legislated in work, leaving men to believe that women are still put on this earth to do their domestic drudgery as some kind of unpaid domestic servant. Which might be fine if that was even applauded, respected and appreciated by the majority of men, but it isn’t, which is why most women go to work outside the home – to find a place in the world where they are treated as a valuable, contributing member of society, because looking after a husband and children is treated as if it’s a scive. Having worked outside the home from the age of ten and then for two years at home with a young child, I can appreciate that both are pretty bloody tiring but one of the main reasons I went back to work outside the home was because being a stay at home mother is depicted by people like Quentin Letts and the rest of the male media as a tedious, scrounging, lazy option. In order to be seen and respected by other people in society I had to go back to work outside the home. Sad.

  2. MAPLELEEF says:

    Comment on linguistics – I don’t think we can blame Brookes or Cameron for not knowing the alternative meaning for ‘country supper’. After all, street slang changes all the time and like all slang is limited to a minority of people.

    As to the ‘good wife’ label, I disagree that’s it’s sexist to take on different roles within a marriage. For instance, I do all the decorating because I’m better at it and more inspired than my husband, he tends to do most of the cooking because he likes the creative side of it and is a better cook than I. As long as neither of us feel exploited in doing those tasks, it isn’t a problem.

    I do agree that being a homemaker isn’t respected as much as a job outside the home. A friend of mine in the US Marines said that being a mother was much the hardest occupation she’d ever taken on.

    • vicki wharton says:

      That’s the real sexism, that work that women do is automatically downgraded in male culture’s perception of value, importance and difficulty. Having worked in high stress work such as running Kelloggs’ crisis management PR team throughout the salt in cornflakes furora, I know that breastfeeding a baby at home after a 28 hour labour and an emergency caesarian surrounded by family, friends and ex partner making wise cracks about me being too posh to push and just having to flop a tit out was hideously exhausting. Having doctors hovering over you itching to slap a mental health label on you is scary too – as most doctors can’t be bothered to work out depression from exhaustion, and lowered mental outlook from no help or respite from a 24 hour a day job surrounded by ignorant, indifferent people who have no knowledge or interest in supporting a female with a young baby. There is a reason we have one of the highest rates of post natal depression in the world, most of which I believe is actually exhaustion brought on by birth and lack of practical help and care by family and friends to allow the mother to recover. Exhausted mothers and ignorant, indifferent fathers lead to us having the highest incidence of scared, obese children, eating their way through their anxiety.

  3. The “backlash against Cherie Booth” was nothing to do with her failing to play the good wife, rather to do with her unpleasant personality, money-grubbing, and deranged ideas about health. Similiarly Ms Bercow, who appears to be borderline barmy and grasping.

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