AP/Mic Smith
Jenny Sanford speaks to the media while leaving home on Sullivan Island, S.C., on June 25, 2009.

A New Breed of Political Wife Shows Poise and Courage in the Wake of Scandal

August 25, 2009 05:10 PM
by Shannon Firth
After her husband Gov. Mark Sanford publicly confessed to having an affair, Jenny Sanford refused to play the role of scorned wife or loyal martyr. Recently, more politicians’ wives who have endured similar humiliation are stepping outside the traditional wallflower model.

Politicians’ Wives Take a Stand

Jenny Sanford, Elizabeth Edwards and Hillary Clinton have all endured betrayals by their politician husbands, but instead of withdrawing to tend to their wounds, each one has stepped forward in her own way. Newsweek writer Kathleen Deveny commends this “new breed of political wife.” She writes, “All of them managed to take lemons, make lemonade, and add a shot of vodka.”

Jenny Sanford, the first lady of South Carolina and investment banker-turned-stay-at-home mother, appears to be the leading the pack. The Washington Post called her “a new role model for wronged spouses,” reported Vogue. And others substantiate these claims. “I think most women in her position would still be under the covers,” her friend Frannie Reese told Vogue. “Jenny wants to go bicycling.”

According to Newsweek, she was absent as her husband delivered a by now familiar apology to the cameras. And in early August, she packed up and left the governor’s mansion. “From there, we will work to continue the process of healing our family,” she told The Associated Press.

After her husband, former presidential candidate John Edwards, incited a media circus with the revelation of his affair, Elizabeth Edwards also chose not to shrink from the public eye.

Instead she wrote a book. Her memoir, “Resilience,” barely touches on her husband’s affair. “The strength of this book lies in how little of it actually has to do with John Edwards’ caddish behavior,” writes Los Angeles Times writer Scott Martelle. The book focuses on her own life, her struggles with cancer, and grieving her son’s death. Though Edwards emphasizes forgiveness, Martelle points out that Mr. Edwards’ name is not in the acknowledgments.

Edwards showed further initiative in the recent opening of her own furniture store, modeled off a similar store her mother managed in Japan, reported the AP.

Actress Julianna Margulies, once the star of the hospital drama ER, now plays the disgraced wife of a politician on a new TV series, “The Good Wife.” Margulies has a lot of respect for wives betrayed in real life. “These aren’t silly little wallflowers. Silda Spitzer runs a hedge fund. Elizabeth Edwards wrote a book. Look at Hillary Clinton,” Margulies told CBS.

Still, Hillary Clinton has been criticized for her handling of her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, which many, including AP writer Matthew Lee, argue helped her win a seat in the Senate in 2001.

Lee writes, “She has supported his career while looking to blaze a career of her own—at times proud of, and benefiting from her husband’s accomplishments, and at other times frustrated by his failings.”

Background: Jenny Sanford’s reaction to her husband’s affair

 In Jenny Sanford’s Statement, published by The Wall Street Journal in June, she explained why she asked her husband to leave her home. She noted, “[T]he 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.”

Historical Analysis: Famously betrayed political wives

Although President Kennedy was notoriously unfaithful, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis repeatedly denied or justified his affairs. After his assassination in 1963, the then first lady spoke with Theodore White of Life magazine, urging him to, in her words, “rescue Jack from all these ‘bitter people’ who were going to write about him in history.”

Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King Jr. was a singer, an organizer and an activist in her own right. Despite King’s rumored infidelity, Coretta dedicated much of her life to preserving his image.


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