In a new Vogue profile, Rebecca Johnson claims that Jenny Sanford's grace following her husband Mark's admission of his affair has changed "the options for wronged political wives." Unfortunately, the profile reinforces plenty of old stereotypes.
One thing is clear from the piece: Sanford is smart. Discussing why her governor husband was willing to risk his career and his children's welfare for an affair, she says,
Politicians become disconnected from the way everyone else lives in the world. I saw that from the very beginning. They'll say they need something, and ten people want to give it to them. It's an ego boost, and it's easy to drink your own Kool-Aid.
She seems to have a clear-eyed view of her husband's sense of entitlement, and of the constant drive for bigger and better things that left him feeling dissatisfied with his life. Elsewhere, though, her analysis of his problems sounds less credible. She tells Johnson,
Over the course of both pastoral and marriage counseling, it became clear to me that he was just obsessed with going to see this woman. I have learned that these affairs are almost like an addiction to alcohol or pornography. They just can't break away from them.
This seems perilously close to the language typically used by celebrities when they blame "sex addiction" for their infidelity. It may be helpful to Sanford to think of her husband's affair in terms of substance abuse, and indeed the two may have some parallels, but Sanford's hardly breaking new ground here when she chalks up her husband's dalliances to an affliction beyond his control. Her comments about aging and gender, though, are more upsetting. She says,
Midlife aging is different for men than for women. Mark is worried about what his next job is. He worries about making money, running for office again, his legacy. I know my legacy is my children. I don't worry about that.
Johnson mentions Sanford's devotion to her children several times in the piece, at one point linking her "unlikely heroism" to the fact that "her children were the most important thing in the world to her." Of course the Sanfords' children have likely suffered as a result of their father's very public affair, and it's good that their mother is looking out for them. On the other hand, the idea that men have midlife crises because they can't get validation from family life, but that children inoculate women against these problems, is a damaging one. Jenny Sanford certainly didn't invent the stereotype that men live for work and women live for kids, but this "old-fashioned woman," as she calls herself, is certainly perpetuating it — and Johnson (unsurprisingly, since this is Vogue) doesn't interrogate the notion at all. Instead, she writes,
Mixing work and love as the Sanfords did in their campaigns, first for Congress and then for the governorship, might be practical-Sanford likes to joke that he hired his wife because "the price was right"-but it can be lethal to a marriage. Eroticism is fueled by mystery, and it can be hard to feel that about a person who is overseeing the latest returns from the fifteenth precinct.
Working with a spouse can certainly be tough, and it may have been difficult to share campaign duties when Jenny Sanford was ambivalent on her husband's political rise, but does Johnson need to channel pop-relationship self-help books with the phrase, "eroticism is fueled by mystery?" Does Sanford's story really need to be a story about men, women, and relationships in general — or even about "wronged political wives?"
In her statement acknowledging her husband's affair, Jenny Sanford wrote,
I personally believe that the greatest legacy I will leave behind in this world is not the job I held on Wall Street, or the campaigns I managed for Mark, or the work I have done as First Lady or even the philanthropic activities in which I have been routinely engaged. Instead, the greatest legacy I will leave in this world is the character of the children I, or we, leave behind. It is for that reason that I deeply regret the recent actions of my husband Mark, and their potential damage to our children.
Note the first three words — "I personally believe." Not "I believe, on behalf of all women." Jenny Sanford is a woman with a deep, personal commitment to her family, and her husband is a man who failed in his commitment to his. But that doesn't mean that loving your children — or even considering them your legacy — will keep you from cheating. Nor does it mean that men can't derive a sense of purpose or satisfaction from their kids. Rather, it means that Mark Sanford, perhaps because he was "worried about his legacy," perhaps because of an addictive relationship to another woman, or perhaps for a host of other reasons, chose to behave in a way he had previously called "reprehensible." His wife has handled a painful situation with grace, but she is not a template for all women, nor is her husband (thank God) a template for all men. Pretending that they are does wives and husbands, political and otherwise — not to mention their children, who shouldn't be set up as a bulwark against infidelity — a grave disservice.
Notes On A Scandal [Vogue]