You know how you can hear the sound of hate in somebody's voice without even seeing their face? I woke up to that sound a month ago when my bedside radio -- tuned to NPR -- broadcast a story from an American Legion conference where the attendees were clearly not Obama supporters. One strident woman, when asked about Obama, bashed him but spewed unalloyed hate in describing Michelle, saying, "She's far from the first lady.It's about time we get a first lady in there that acts like a first lady, and looks like a first lady."
The words don't look so venomous written down, but the tone of condescension and derision in that voice stuck with me all day.
Apparently it bothered other listeners just as much because a large number commented on the story, hearing pretty much what I heard -- an ugliness that didn't seem quite right and went beyond politics. The segment prompted NPR's ombudsman to weigh in with his opinion.
And now, a month later, the reporter -- Ari Shapiro -- happened to run into that same woman at another Republican American Legion event and once again I heard her voice as I was getting dressed for the day as he asked her to clarify her position. Listen to the clip and draw your own conclusions.
Beyond the question of whether racism was a part of her disdain is a larger question: what are our expectations of a candidate's wife or potential First Lady? Of course we expect that she'll be attractive and well-spoken, and support her husband on the campaign trail, but what about those don't fit the mold, or don't want to drop their lives and careers to be another prop for their political husbands?
For those that do, what do we expect from them in terms of behavior, dress, demeanor, modesty?
This fascinates me because I thought 2012 would be different.
In 2008 Hillary Rodhamn Clinton almost won the Democratic nomination, and she got closer to that end goal than any other runner-up before her.
In 2008 the Republicans nominated a female vice president in a game-changing move, and no matter what you think of Sarah Palin today, that moment was glorious, groundbreaking, and heralded a new age in which an attractive female candidate who looked like any of us could lead what's been long perceived as a party of aging white men.
In 2008 the first African American First Lady stepped into the White House --- a former working mother who had to negotiate kids and career decisions like so many of us.
So much happened that propelled women forward in 2008 that I thought the momentum would carry through to 2012. How disappointing to have only Michele Bachmann enter the field of presidential contenders. How frustrating that Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan when there were at least three women who merited as much consideration as Ryan and could have really shaken up the race.
So here we are, stuck with focusing on candidates' wives and First Ladies when we should be the story and not the ornamental spouse dangling on the arm of The Man in Power.
The reality is that we seem perfectly happy to consider a powerful woman for elected office, but when she's the spouse of a powerful man, she'd better be pretty, subservient, demure, and focused on nothing more strenuous than straightening his pinstripe tie and patting his perfectly-behaved offspring on the head. Because a woman who doesn't know and accept her place could threaten the administration. We still keep those women down.
Women used to marry power because it was the best chance they had of perhaps gaining some for themselves. The traditional route to leadership often had to do with a family's political dynasty, or a father or spouse dying and leaving a political position vacant. These were the ways in which women insinuated themselves in government before they were able to make it in on their own merits and under their own steam. Alliance with a powerful man has long been the ticket.
Not anymore. And more and more women are recognizing that.
So I have to keep repeating to myself, "It's only one election. There'll be others."
Until then, we'll be heavily scrutinizing candidates' wives for lack of anything better to do.
Not to sound like a cougar or anything, but I can't wait to scrutinize a candidate's husband. It's about time the tables were turned.
Photo of Michelle Obama and Jill Biden © Win McNamee/Getty Images