3.13.2008

Thoughts on standing by your man

This whole Eliot Spitzer case is a nightmare. For those of you not in the know, Spitzer is the crime-fighting governor of NY who's apparently spent around $80,000 on prostitutes in the last few years. There's been a lot of interesting talk on the feminist blogosphere--articles in Feministing here and here. But I don't want to engage in the issue of Spitzer's asshattery here. Instead, I find that I'm thinking a lot about the "stand by your man" thing that Spitzer's wife Silda has been facing.

Here's an article that Eliza sent me from the Columbia Journalism Review. The end of it is what I find particularly interesting, where Megan Garber considers the victim blaming rhetoric that's accumulating in the media, the tone of, "What is wrong with Silda Spitzer?"

I find this tone very disturbing. I really do get the politics of why it's so appalling that we expect high-ranking spouses to "stand by" and thus validate their partners after their partners have engaged in behavior that is reprehensible, misogynistic, and/or heinous in other ways. And I get that Silda Spitzer has a public role as the wife of a prominent politician. But the thing that bothers me is that we want to blame the spouses for it in ways that seem very personally judgmental.

I think I partly come at this as someone who's in a relationship that isn't always easy. While Biffle may not have spent $80,000 on prostitutes, addiction and depression have given us our share of difficulties. Those of us who have been in challenging relationships like this know it's really hard to say, "I wouldn't have stood for that." Because, in fact, I've stayed for a lot of stuff, and I have no idea what my breaking point would be. Intimate relationships are mysterious, and while I see all the political messages that Silda's "standing by" conveys, I also am troubled by how judgmental people want to be of her. It feels like victim blaming. In my head I'm saying to these people, "Okay, you haven't been through any really, really bad shit in your marriage yet. Count yourself lucky, but don't judge."

In my Gender and Violence class this week we were talking about domestic violence, in particular about the most common question people ask about violent relationships: "Why doesn't she leave?" We talked about the fact that this is an incredibly reductive question, that--as legal scholar Martha Mahoney says--this question imagines away all the very hard work of creating an intimate relationship. That question assumes that anyone would throw away that hard work, those intimate connections, those feelings of love--that, in fact, any rational person would know better than to stay. (As a side note unrelated to the Spitzer case, the question also assumes that there are adequate institutional supports for women who do leave, which is patently and offensively not true--the death of a woman in Charleston this weekend whose estranged husband violated his restraining order and came into her house and shot the woman and her father is only the most recent example of the profound failure of institutional supports for women who leave.)

Anyway, I just find it to be unhelpful to blame women who make hard choices in very difficult life situations. I also find it to be a bit dishonest, because all of us who are in long-term intimate relationships know, in our heart of hearts, that things are much messier and more complicated in those relationships than our self-congratulatory glib judgments of others would suggest.

As one friend said yesterday, "I have learned that unforgiveable is not something you can judge for someone else."

6 comments:

Daniel said...

One basic issue I have with drive-by judgment on stories like this is that it presumes to know something of the relationship between two people we've not only never met, but know nothing about. How many people outside New York knew before this week that Spitzer's wife was named Silda? But we've got opinions on what this means to their relationship?

We don't have a clue about the level of intimacy, honesty and openness between these two married people.

Syd said...

I haven't walked in either of their shoes. I don't know what she thinks or what their relationship is. But I think that I could see pain on her face. I thought that she was incredibly brave.

I listened to his resignation speech. And I wonder whether he was sorry before he was caught? Don't know the answer to that one either. I hope that he and Silda find peace.

And you're right, we never know how we're going to react until the time comes.

claire said...

Well you know I'll jump in and you know I am way too judgemental...but here is my two cents. yes, we can never know why she might have done it. But this is not a private issue of whether or not she will remain married to her husband. This is a public question of what it means for the wife of a politician, to stand by a man who has betrayed the people of New York (and abetted the forces of cynicism) by flaunting the very laws that he not only swore he would uphold but that he also had a legitimate reputation for upholding. So my dream wife in such a situation is not necessarily the one who says "hell no, you made your bed, now lie in it" but rather the one willing to say: "our marriage is our business, but as the wife of the governor let me say right now how disappointed I am that my husband, who swore to uphold the law has flaunted it so baldly." By standing by what I fear has happened is that this has become a private issue between Spitzer and his wife. But there are ramifications of this for people beyond the Spitzers, and turning this into an issue of marriage blinds us to those issues. (Not the least of which are the current spate of articles about "Kristen.")

Conseula said...

I think this whole conversation about Silda standing by her man is actually a conversation about Hilary and Bill. I think we're all itching to have a conversation about the dysfunction of that relationship (including his seeming, perhaps unwitting, attempts to sabotage her campaign after Iowa), but its uncouth to do so. Silda's just a surrogate.

And while we can certainly never know the intimate details of other marriages or even know what our own breaking point is until we reach it, there is something upsetting about the presumption of spousal loyalty in these cases. It isn't that Silda or Hilary is wrong for sticking by their husbands. It's the public spectacle of the whole thing that's distasteful, as if her loyalty doesn't count unless she performs it in public. And in that case, then, the woman doesn't get to be a full, emotional human being. She's merely a prop in the mea culpa show.

Totally0Random said...

Claire, you raise an interesting point about the temporary and very public wife-of-a-politician role vs. the longer-term, and usually private, wife-of-a-flawed-human role. I just wonder how fair it is to expect (or, really, demand) that a politician’s partner engage the voting public about such issues at all. The partners never ran for office. They are not on an official payroll, as far as I know. As partners of politicians in our current society, they have *knowingly* entered into an unwritten social contract to shoulder certainly political and social responsibilities in return for considerable financial (and other) rewards. But why is that necessarily so?

Most romantic partners have no expectation of social responsibilities based on their loved ones’ jobs. I can only come up with similar burdens for partners of politicians, religious leaders, and faculty (though that is dying out, right? I hope so for my own sake!). I refuse to bow to any expectation to host faculty dinners and be part of some saccharine faculty wives' club (ok, that’s not really a fair depiction). So why should we allow the denial of freedom of partners from all professions? Regardless of my profession, no one demands that my husband exhibit perfect grammar and spelling. It's certainly fair to expect politicians to disapprove of--and if brought to light, publicly denounce--illegal activity by their families, but why should the responsibility flow the other way? To be honest, this isn't really an issue I've thought much about before reading your comment, so please forgive its anemic presentation.

Consuela, brilliant points. It’s a sickening reduction of a human being to expect her to stand there as if saying, “Well if even *I* can forgive him, you in the public should, too.”

We certainly do make ridiculous assumptions about others’ relationships. Perhaps these wives don’t really care—or even prefer—that their husbands sate their sexual appetites elsewhere. Perhaps they love their husbands’ power more than loving the men themselves. Perhaps fidelity of a different kind matters to them more. Perhaps what really pains them is the spectacle of standing by their men in public, being forced into the role of wronged woman. I’m not saying that any of this is true. But it seems that we’re not even allowed to question whether these women would feel “wronged” by their husbands’ “sexual misconduct.”

Alison, I just adore you and very much respect your opinions. It boggles my mind that you’ve basically been amazingly wise since at least high school but you keep pushing yourself to dig deeper. I wish we had overlapped more in school! -- Mel

claire said...

Well to keep this going....Mel, thanks for the comment. Her's what I think on this go around. It is not the "standing by" it is the "standing up for" that I dislike. To have the wife of a politician (who does have a job to play, after all she did quit her own paid job and she did do various 'wife of the governor' types of events/causes) stand up for her husband says two things. One, it allows him to make a public failing a private one (this is why I would say it is not about the Clintons, after all Bill [ok except for sexual harassment laws] did not break the law). It allows this public betrayal be framed as a private issue between them. Two it turns her into a pawn for his own betrayal. Now here is where I think people just disagree -- I call her a pawn; but she could well have chosen for good reason to stand by him at that moment (the wife of governor mcgreavy said she stood by her husband [radically different circumstance] for her children, to show them that she supported their father), absent knowing that reason I still, judgementally, disapprove.