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Political Wives and Widows

by Jo Freeman

In politics, the sins of the husband may be visited upon the wife, but usually not upon the widow.

The public reaction to the candidacies of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jean Carnahan for the U.S. Senate spoke volumes about the how women's opportunities in politics are still tied to their husbands, living and dead.

Hillary was a real candidate for public office, properly nominated, actively running and now the victor in her race as the new Senator from New York. 

Jean was a ghost candidate.  She was not nominated, was not running herself as a candidate, and the voters of Missouri couldn't vote for her directly on election day.  It was her deceased husband, former Governor Mel Carnahan, whose name appeared on the ballot.  The voters did 'elect' Carnahan on Tuesday and the current Governor said that he will choose the candidate's widow to occupy the seat until a new election can be held in two years.

There had been much public sniping at Hillary's candidacy, and not just by Republican partisans.  There was none at Jean's though it was, at best, a manipulation of the political system for partisan ends (i.e. to get another Democratic seat in the Senate). This has been a practice in other races over the years when some wives have been appointed, in most cases, after the death of a House or Senate incumbent.

Why the difference?

Hillary is a political wife.  Jean is a political widow.

Despite the greater public acceptance of women in political life, wives can still be seen as appendages of their husbands.  They carry his baggage along with his name but if he dies, his wife still may keep the name, but usually loses the baggage associated with his legacy.

For political wives -- women married to politicians -- this means that, in most cases, her status rises and falls with his.  No matter how independent her actions or her ideas, it is her husband's position that counts most.  Traditionally, the typical political wife left politics when her husband did.

Hillary defied that tradition.  While taking advantage of the name, she struck out on her own even before her husband left the presidency.  For this she was criticized and even condemned.

Jean operated within traditional attitudes toward women. She acted as her husband's surrogate, and served his party by helping it to gain a Senate seat.

Although being the wife of a prominent political man certainly boosts one's name recognition, there could be more advantage to being a widow in this instance. When a political wife becomes a political widow, she combines the advantages of her husband's prior status, name and good will with the independence to forge her own path.

For the first third of the twentieth century, political widows in the United States were more successful in finding a place for themselves in politics than most other political women in national politics.  In the second third, women increased their presence in politics independently of their husbands, but it still helped to be a widow.  In the last third, widowhood was no longer the stepping stone it had once been.  But in the year 2000 we found that it doesn't hurt.

Of the first fourteen women elected to Congress (between 1916 and 1932) six were widows of incumbents, and three were daughters of famous political men.

Of the first ten women to serve as U.S. Senators, five were appointed to fill vacancies and seven served less than a year. While not all seven were Senatorial widows, all were elected or appointed solely to hold the seat open for the men who were expected to run for it.

The three women who served a full Senate term all succeeded their husbands.  Hattie Caraway (D. Ark.) initially filled her dead husband's term but was twice re-elected.  Margaret Chase Smith (R. Me.) succeeded her husband in the House, then ran for the Senate on her own.  Maurine Neuberger (D. Ore.) replaced her incumbent husband when he died two days before the deadline to file for reelection.  It was 1978 before a woman was elected to a full term who was not a political widow; Nancy Landon Kassenbaum (R. KS) was a political daughter who had not held public office prior to her election to the Senate.

Like Kassenbaum, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jean Carnahan had not previously run for public office.  But in this case, it was only Hillary Rodham Clinton who carried baggage, some of it quite negative, some quite positive, along with her famous political name.  She is a political wife.  Jean is a political widow. And now, they are both members of the U.S. Senate. 

 

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