Walk of Shame
In the meantime, South Carolina First Lady Jenny Sanford has another well-worn path to tread -- the walk of shame endured by so many blindsided, humiliated political wives before her. Some of the best and brightest have walked this path: Hillary Clinton, Silda Spitzer, Elizabeth Edwards -- and they do so stoically, silently, with white knuckles and pale complexions, standing by their men because to do otherwise is political suicide.
Infidelity is hard enough on any family. Imagine addressing its ramifications with your husband and kids while a whole nation watches.
Stand By Their Man
No political wife can afford the luxury of sour grapes. Some possess the smarts (and the resilience) to make lemonade out of the situation. All undoubtedly fight the urge to walk away from the marriage (and the fishbowl of public life) altogether. But they put on a brave face and stand by their man, even if it's only to say that their husband "has earned a chance to resurrect our marriage" as Jenny Sanford has stated.
Men Do, Women Don't
Last August I wrote a post entitled "Why Male Politicians Cheat on Their Spouses...and Why Female Politicians Don't." In it, I quoted psychologist Barbara Cohn Schlachet who noted that women with political power are rarely unfaithful and asked:
Are we just better people than the men? Is it really all about testosterone? Or, perhaps, we just keep a secret better. What can we expect of women when more of us attain positions of power?When Two Heads Aren't Better Than One
At this point, I'm tempted to say that since women don't struggle with the rash impulses of a "little head," perhaps it's easier for our big heads to prevail. But by blaming it all on gender, that would be as ignorant as saying that since women have a menstrual period, at that "time of the month" they're incapable of rational thought.
That argument has kept women down and out of power for years.
Kick the Bum Out
In the same way that angry voters feel compelled to "kick the bums out," angry political wives should be free to do the same with their husbands. Jenny Sanford essentially followed this game plan as she acknowledged in a public statement:
When I found out about my husband's infidelity I worked immediately to first seek reconciliation through forgiveness, and then to work diligently to repair our marriage. We reached a point where I felt it was important to look my sons in the eyes and maintain my dignity, self-respect, and my basic sense of right and wrong. I therefore asked my husband to leave two weeks ago.Don't Blame the Victim
This trial separation was agreed to with the goal of ultimately strengthening our marriage. During this short separation it was agreed that Mark would not contact us. I kept this separation quiet out of respect of his public office and reputation, and in hopes of keeping our children from just this type of public exposure. Because of this separation, I did not know where he was in the past week.
Before anyone gets ready to stone Jenny Sanford for maintaining radio silence about his absence, note that she tried her best to keep his political reputation intact (which he shredded on his own time, literally) while protecting her children from the ensuing media attention.
We have high expectations for our elected leaders (and rightly so) but those expectations can burden a political wife who's stuck between a rock and a hard place, forced to stretch the truth or even lie outright to cover for her husband.
There is no easy solution, short of electing more women to public office; as Schlachet says, they don't cheat nearly as much as men. But in the meantime, while we hang yet another politician out to dry, let's not throw his wife out with the bathwater. Jenny Sanford deserves our compassion, not to mention every ounce of protection we can muster, for the "dignity and sel-respect" she worked so hard to hold onto...even as her husband literally, figuratively, and politically went AWOL.