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Political Wives as Candidates:
Wave of the Future or Relics from the Past?

by Jo Freeman

Hillary Clinton, Liddy Dole and Tipper Gore all became well known public figures because of the men they married. None of them are ciphers. When their husbands leave public office, what do they do?

Hillary was elected to the Senate from New York in 2000. Liddy Dole, wife of 1996 Presidential candidate Bob Dole, is running for an open Senate seat in North Carolina. Tipper Gore, wife of former Vice President Albert Gore, briefly considered running for his former Senate seat in Tennessee, whose occupant was not running for re-election.

Now that women are finally being taken seriously when they run for higher office, will a preferred place be given to the wives of well-known political men?

Neither Hillary, Liddy nor Tipper were directly replacing their husbands — a traditional route to public office — though the seat that Tipper considered was the one Al gave up to run for Vice President. But all three received the valuable political asset of name recognition from the men they married, along with some of his political baggage.

Ironically, the first woman to sit in the US Senate did not fill her husband's shoes, or benefit from his name. Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia was appointed in 1922 to serve for one day. She had helped her husband when he was in Congress from 1874 to 1880, but it was her decades of acidic political commentary in local newspapers which made her a public figure in her own right.

The first woman to be elected to the US Senate was a classic political widow. Hattie Caraway (D. Ark.), initially appointed to finish her dead husband's term in 1931, was re-elected after Sen. Huey Long (D. La.) came into Arkansas to campaign vigorously for her.

The type of woman who runs for higher office has changed considerably since these pioneers, but who one's husband is, or was, still matters.

Hillary Clinton's quest for the New York Senate seat was truly unprecedented. No first lady has ever been rumored to want to run for public office after her husband's term was over. But if Hillary's husband hadn't been President, it's doubtful she would have run at all.

Liddy Dole's closest predecessor was Ruth Hanna McCormick, daughter of Senator Mark Hanna (R. Ohio) and wife of Senator Medill McCormick (R. Ill). Like Liddy, Ruth was also a public figure in her own right, having spent years organizing Republican women. She was elected to Congress in 1928, four years after her husband died. But when she tried to follow him into the Senate she ran into resistance. Supporters of the Republican incumbent that Ruth defeated in the 1930 primary united behind the Democrat to defeat her in the general election.

Tipper's political predecessors weren't Senators but Governors. Because Tipper did not have a career separate from her husband, and comes from the same state, she would have been perceived as his surrogate. When the husband is popular, this works; when he's not, it doesn't.

Miriam A. "Ma" Ferguson was elected Governor of Texas in 1924; her husband could not run again because he had been impeached. Her campaign slogan was "two governors for the price of one." She was defeated in 1926, but elected again in 1932 and 1934.

In 1966, when Governor George Wallace of Alabama couldn't get the state constitution changed so he could serve a consecutive term, he ran his wife, Lurleen. Their slogan was "Let George do it." She won, but died of cancer in 1968.

Not until 1978 was a woman elected to the Senate who did not begin life as a political wife — and Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R. KS) was a political daughter. Her father, Alfred M. Landon, was Governor of Kansas (1933-37) and the 1936 Republican Presidential candidate.

Eight years later Barbara Mikulski (D. MD) was elected to the Senate after ten years in the House. She was one of the new generation of political women who forged their own careers, unburdened and unbenefitted by political husbands, or fathers.

Now that women like her are no longer oddities, are they being supplanted by a new type of political wife, who is a serious candidate, not a surrogate, but still runs for office on her husband's name?

If Tipper had run for Senator, she and Liddy would have been studies in contrast, with different problems and possibilities.

Neither were widows, so wouldn't get the sympathy that eased the way for political wives of the past. But both have the family name and family connections. They also have a lot of campaign experience.

Tipper, the Democrat, is an old fashioned political wife, who has devoted her life to raising her children and supporting her husband. Liddy, the Republican, is a modern political woman, whose independent career was made possible by the very feminist movement her party despises.

Tipper, the classic political wife, would be attacked for what her husband did or didn't do when in public office. Many would assume she was a stand-in for Al, in a state he did not win in his 2000 Presidential campaign. Al would be running with her, even if he stayed silent and unseen.

Liddy, the independent political woman, may be accused of carpet bagging. She grew up in North Carolina, but left. Her career was mostly in Washington, DC, where she married a man who represented Kansas for 36 years. Similar charges plagued Hillary Clinton when she ran for the Senate in 2000. Hillary won, but North Carolina isn't New York.

Are these famous political wives taking us back to the future? Or are they breaking new ground for more women to enter politics, independently of their husbands?


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