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Political Spouses Have Evolved Since Martha Washington

In the early years of the Republic, wives of politicians were often helpmates and could wield power despite their gender. Today, spouses challenge traditional gender norms in politics and have broad work portfolios.

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Doug Emhoff, America's first Second Gentleman, and husband of Vice President Kamala Harris. The existence of a second gentleman is historic and unprecedented. It's the strongest example yet of how political spouses have evolved since the days of Martha Washington. (Whitehouse.gov)
Politics has long been the domain of men, but from the very beginning political spouses have wielded significant power behind the scenes. More recently, political spouses have forged formidable roles as partners and allies. Their role reveals the complicated relationship between power and gender, while demonstrating how our cultural expectations have evolved and what has remained the same.

After George Washington died in 1799, his wife Martha burned their correspondence. As a result, we know little about their intimate relationship, but it seems likely she focused on the more traditional wifely role as hostess and homemaker, rather than offering political advice. To be sure, Washington appreciated her contributions and begged her to stay with him at winter headquarters every year during the Revolutionary War. During George’s presidency, Martha remained at his side and hosted social gatherings that served as the center of the Republican Court.

The Republican Court was comprised of the governing officials and elite families in New York City and Pennsylvania. Martha Washington’s Friday evening drawing rooms were the focal point of Republican Court festivities, but Second Lady Abigail Adams and the Cabinet secretaries’ wives also hosted weekly gatherings. The presence of women made these events semiprivate and nonpolitical. Technically, women weren’t supposed to engage in politics, so their presence precluded political negotiations. Or that was the theory anyway. In reality, 18th-century women shared political opinions as freely as 21st-century women.

The presence of women, and the semiprivate designation of these events, provided an opportunity to government officials — one that Washington was quick to utilize. Because Martha was the official host, George attended the drawing rooms as a private citizen. Accordingly, he could speak to congressmen about legislation and other administrative measures without being accused of improperly interfering in legislative affairs. Other attendees arranged marriages, lobbied for appointments and tried to secure positions for their friends and family. In both the Washington and Adams administrations, the Republican Court social events proved to be a critical venue for behind-the-scenes political negotiations, networking and coalition building.

By the 1820s, presidential candidates had developed a complicated relationship with elections. The candidates themselves were not supposed to campaign openly for the position. They were expected, however, to build relationships with delegates, newspaper editors and political operators to campaign on their behalf. A candidate’s wife — and their party-hosting skills in particular — could make or break a campaign. Dolley Madison and Louisa Catherine Adams exemplified the power of campaign wives. Their legendary soirees included all of the leading figures in Washington, D.C., and proved to be the social events of the season. The food, décor and entertainment cost a fortune and were covered in exquisite detail in the local newspapers. These events helped cultivate support for their husband’s election campaigns and provided space for critical backroom deals.

While Dolley Madison and Louisa Catherine Adams helped their husbands acquire fame and electoral victories, first ladies could also serve as a source of political liability. Mary Todd Lincoln and Julia Grant both ran up exorbitant shopping bills that made them liable to blackmail, accepted gifts in exchange for political favors and invited scandal by introducing questionable characters into their husband’s political circle.

But first ladies weren’t the only political spouses that threatened to create a ruckus in governing circles. In 1829, Second Lady Floride Calhoun and the wives of the Cabinet secretaries refused to socialize with Margaret Eaton, the wife of Secretary of War John Eaton, because she had a questionable reputation and reportedly engaged in sexual relations before marriage. President Andrew Jackson demanded that the Cabinet secretaries and their wives treat Margaret as their equal, but the leading women of Washington, D.C., refused. For the next year, Jackson did not consult with most of his secretaries until Secretary of State Martin Van Buren engineered a mass Cabinet resignation to provide the president with an opportunity to select new secretaries. But in the meantime, Jackson was left without the benefit of Cabinet advice and the scandal roiled Washington society. The incident, which became known as the Petticoat Affair, also demonstrated the power women wielded over private events and the social aspects of political culture.

For the first 100 years of the nation, most women served as helpmates, but a few wives also provided invaluable political guidance. Abigail Adams was John’s most trusted adviser, and Sarah Polk was involved in every major decision of James K. Polk’s administration. Their advice didn’t go unnoticed, nor was it always welcome. Many of Adams’ critics accused him of working with a cabinet of one — Abigail. This accusation was intended to suggest that Abigail wore the pants in the marriage. His opponents suggested that if John wasn’t man enough to control his wife, he wasn’t man enough to run the country. The criticism levied against Adams revealed the roles women were expected to fill, what topics they were permitted to discuss and what was out of bounds.

In the 20th century, women emerged as political forces in their own right. While many first ladies had their pet causes, Eleanor Roosevelt was the first to carve out her own agenda. She was an outspoken advocate for civil rights through her vigorous travel schedule, daily newspaper column, monthly magazine articles, radio addresses and regular press conferences. Since Roosevelt, most first ladies have forged a middle ground between activist and hostess. Jacqueline Kennedy helmed a restoration project of the White House and emphasized the importance of preserving American history and culture. Betty Ford normalized conversations around breast cancer and supported the Equal Rights Amendment. Both First Lady Bushes were strong advocates for childhood education and reading. Hillary Clinton spearheaded the (failed) effort to get health-care legislation passed. Michelle Obama focused on childhood health, nutrition and other activities. While Jill Biden has yet to fully stake out her portfolio, support for community colleges and widespread access to college education are certain to be on her list.

As first ladies’ positions continue to evolve, so too have the roles of political spouses surrounding the presidency. Not until President Dwight Eisenhower selected Oveta Culp Hobby as the secretary of health, education and welfare, however, did this circle include male spouses. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Robert Weaver as the secretary of housing and urban development and the first Black Cabinet secretary. Weaver’s appointment marked the first time the Cabinet wives included a person of color.

This year, that circle continued to evolve when President Joe Biden appointed Pete Buttigieg as the secretary of transportation, the first openly gay, Senate-confirmed Cabinet secretary. Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, is another first for the Cabinet circle. Additionally, the election of Kamala Harris has produced many interesting conversations around the role of the spouse of the vice president, now Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff. The existence of a second gentleman is historic and unprecedented, and caused many to ask whether a man would continue to play the supporting role for his spouse. Questions, of course, that are never asked of women.

While Emhoff’s sheer existence as a supportive second gentlemen is radical, his portfolio actually follows the examples set by his predecessors. Emhoff regularly hosts events, is teaching a class at Georgetown University Law Center, tours COVID-19 vaccination centers to encourage medical care workers and visited the Library of Congress and White House library to draw attention to the importance of history and education. He even brought cupcakes to the White House librarians who provide reading recommendations. Traditionally, education, reading and health care are subjects considered “safe” for women — and now second gentlemen — to focus their energies without stepping outside accepted gender roles or interfering with the “serious” work of governing. Perhaps in the 21st century, these activities complement and boost the administration’s efforts, without distracting from the president’s message.

Regardless of their portfolio, the presence of Chasten Buttigieg and Doug Emhoff, and many other male Cabinet spouses in the Biden administration, challenge traditional gender norms in politics. They expand our notion of who belongs, who gets to participate in the political process and who wields power — no small public service.



Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is an expert in the cabinet, presidential history, and U.S. government institutions. She can be found on Twitter at @lmchervinsky.
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