Is it still politic to play the good wife?
“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.
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.