Janna Ryan, as in Paul's wife, as in America's potential future Second Lady, spends most of the year in her house in Janesville, Wisconsin, raising three young children as a stay-at-home mom while her husband is off doing Man Work in Washington. But it wasn't always that way. In fact, before Janna met Paul, back when Janna Ryan was Janna Little, she was a member of a prominent family of Oklahoma Democrats, Wellesley graduate, marcher for women's rights, and, eventually, powerful attorney and lobbyist with a life that was more Sonia Sotomayor than Stepford. How did Janna Little become Mrs. Ryan? And why should we care about another woman's choice to focus on being a wife and mother?
At some point in the last decade, someone important (probably Oprah) decided that one of the Rules of Being a Feminist is that if you're a pro-woman lady, you're supposed to support all women's choices at all times. Sure, you're empowered by high heels. Ok, fine, twerking it in front of a webcam for giggling strangers makes you feel powerful. And, alright, I accept that all you want to do is give your husband handies while he watches football games. I thumbs up the borderline troubling amount of whisky you drink, your exploitative work schedule, and the fact that you want to have 17 children and declare your house a church. As long as that's what you honestly want to do with yourself, and as long as you have exhibited agency over that choice and you're not hurting anybody, YOU GO GIRL. I'm not supposed to make a big deal out of it, because if I do, I am judging another woman's choices, which is pretty much the worst thing a lady can do to another lady short of sleeping with someone else's husband. Choose your choice, ladies, and I'll leave you alone as long as you let me choose mine.
But it doesn't take much deep thinking to understand that the choices we celebrate being able to make are often made for us, before we even open our empowerful mouths. Take, for example, the choice to stay home, or go to work. The question of children — how many to have, if any. The choice to live in the place you'd like, with the person you'd like, in the city you'd like. Those aren't really choices in the sense that you can do literally whatever you want — they're selections from a field of options narrowed by circumstance or fate or dumb crap you did.
For example, I couldn't wake up tomorrow and choose, like some kind of ass kicking Wonder Woman Barbie, to march into New York Presbyterian and complete a successful brain surgery; I am not a doctor. I can't choose to be an Olympic gymnast; I'm too old, too tall, and too afraid of flipping over shit that is high up off of the ground and immovable. I can't choose to quit my job and move to Paris, where I spend my days reading dog eared books of poetry in cafes, watching the world pass me by; I am too far in student loan debt and have been born into a family of teachers and am engaged to another person who writes, which means that I will have to work until the day that I die and have my heirs sell my organs on the black market in order to settle my obligations. I can wake up every day and write, I can move back to the Midwest and set up shop in my parents' basement selling homemade jam, or I can remain in Brooklyn and camp out in a garbage can at the foot of some brownstone stairs and yell crabby things at passersby. I'm not rich enough, I don't own a helicopter or even a car, and I have obligations here that would prevent me from making rational drastic changes in my life. My choices are mostly already made.
But if money, mobility, and social freedom afford wealthy women the right to choose whatever suits them best, then why do so the women married to the men who are vying to run the country — almost uniformly wealthy and with superior access to everything money can buy — so frequently choose to give it all up in order to support their husbands? Is their sacrifice so their husbands can have it all a means to a political end? It's tough to pin down where choices stop being individual and start becoming illusions.
According to a new Times profile of Janna Little Ryan, after the "unlikely" pair of a high-powered lobbyist from a Democratic pedigree and a young Republican hotshot who tended to gravitate, dating-wise, toward aerobics instructors in his gym were married, Janna's path was clear.
Upon marriage, the Ryans decided to settle in Janesville instead of in Washington so that their children might have the same sort of upbringing that they had once enjoyed. Mrs. Ryan's life changed greatly, as she traded her high-octane career for a quieter existence behind her husband's rising profile.
"There was no debate, question or concern about her quitting her job and going to Janesville because that's what she wanted to do," said Leslie Belcher, who was a bridesmaid in Mrs. Ryan's wedding. "She's the stabilizing force in the family."
We obviously don't know what goes on in the Ryans' marriage. Maybe Janna hated lobbying. Maybe she hated Washington. Maybe she had always wanted to stay home and raise children in Janesville, Wisconsin, several states away from her own family, while her husband worked in the District. These are all things that a woman could want. But how is it that so many high powered political wives with husbands who took serious runs at the Presidency in the last decade have chosen the same path? Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, and Ann Romney? Callista Gingrich, Karen Santorum, Cindy McCain, Anita Perry? These are all vastly different women with different backgrounds and values, curiously on the same path — staying at home and supporting their husbands' careers. Dr. Jill Biden, the late Elizabeth Edwards, and Carol Paul, wife of ex Presidential candidate Ron Paul were the only three spouses of serious male candidates in 2008 or 2012 who had their own careers.
Husbands of women running for President or Vice President weren't stay-at-home spouses with similar frequency — Marcus Bachmann has that clinic where he tries to cure gays, Todd Palin has his snow machines and commercial fishin', and Hillary has Bill Clinton, whose official job is now to walk up to podiums and stand there telling the crowd to stop wildly applauding so he can speak. There's a clear, and depressingly predictable lopsidedness to which member of a political couple is expected to take care of kid-stuff.
Janna Ryan and the rest of the stay at home crew are free to do what makes them happy, and what makes the most sense in their lives. But while we chase our tails around wondering and re-wondering and triplewondering whether or not women can have it all, let's take a look at the men who do. And who had to give it all up so they could go after it.