This week we saw political and marital gender roles turned inside out, and to brilliant—hopefully lasting—effect. Last night, Hillary Clinton spoke of Bill only twice.
Once, referencing his speech two nights prior, in which he spoke about their marriage and romance: “And Bill, that conversation we started in the law library 45 years ago… it is still going strong.” The other was a fleeting reference to his past presidency: “We heard the man from Hope, Bill Clinton, and the man of hope, Barack Obama.”
Bill, on the other hand, devoted his entire political speech to vaunting his wife. And if that was a preview of what a First Husband looks like, sign me up for a century of supportive men standing behind their powerful spouses.
Bill’s was the love letter, an illustration of their decades together, and a statement of unwavering confidence in Hillary Clinton’s intelligence, competence, and sense of civic duty. Perhaps more subversively, it was also a classic spousal convention speech in its purpose: Bill was on stage to humanize the candidate, a job usually delegated to a doting wife tasked with showing her husband’s softer side. It was wonderful, and overdue, to see a man filling the cheerleader role so often played by a woman.
No one would hold up the Clinton relationship as the marital ideal, let alone cast it as feminist wedded bliss. Two decades after the White House affair and President Clinton’s impeachment and acquittal, the name “Lewinsky” was still on commentators’ tongues, even as Secretary Clinton secured a historic nomination as the first female candidate for president from a major American party. Her husband not only cheated, but did so when he was one of the most visible men on the planet, plunging her into the middle of a national scandal and forcing her to work through personal humiliation and marital devastation under the prying, judgmental and sometimes cruelly mocking eye of the public. Bill is no doubt a narcissist writ large, and that unending need for affirmation and adoration—or, barring that, just attention—has meant trouble for his wife many times before.
But for all of his shortcomings—and they are myriad—there is little doubt that Bill respects and admires Hillary not just as a wife, but as an intellectual equal. In a more feminist world, perhaps their ambitions would have meant she was running for office 30 years ago instead of he; perhaps they would have traded off, or run for different positions at the same time. Instead, the Clintons came of age at a time when the idea of a female president was a sweet thought, but not an achievable reality. In the words of Nora Ephron, who graduated from Wellesley three years before Hillary started there, women “weren’t meant to have futures, we were meant to marry them. We weren’t meant to have politics, or careers that mattered, or opinions, or lives; we were meant to marry them. If you wanted to be an architect, you married an architect.” And if you wanted to be president, you married a future president. And so Hillary did.
Hillary would surely deny today that she wanted to be president at a young age—Americans dislike political ambition even in our politicians, and we distrust ambition generally in women. But this is not the same world in which Hillary met Bill. In 1967, four years before the Clintons began dating, American men ranked “good cook/housekeeper” “refinement / neatness” and “pleasing disposition” as more important qualities in a wife than intelligence. By 2008, when Hillary ran for president the first time, intelligence had pulled ahead. Today men rank it as the quality they most want in a wife.
The United States is a different place for women today than it was even a decade ago, and Hillary is currently reaping the benefits of that change. But so too is her marriage to Bill evidence that it’s easier for ambitious, intelligent women to succeed when they have partners who see them as equals and support their work. Hillary has no doubt made more compromises than Bill in the service of his career than he for hers; she changed her last name when it became a political liability to be Hillary Rodham, and she toned down her feminism when advised that some voters were turned off by a too-powerful political wife. She published her cookie recipe and hosted Easter egg rolls and wrote a children’s book about White House pets.
But she was also unique among First Ladies in keeping an office in the West Wing, instead of the traditional East Wing. When Bill Clinton’s press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, asked in 1993 why Hillary was there, responded, “Because the President wanted her to be there to work. She’ll be working on a variety of domestic policy issues. She’ll be there with other domestic policy advisers.” Before Bill was elected to the presidency, and before Hillary’s independence and intelligence became a political problem, they would joke, “Vote for one, get one free.” There is no question that Hillary was always as bright and determined as Bill, and that their attraction to each other was seated in a mutual desire for a truly equal partner, of equal talent and aptitude. The difference between now and then isn’t the Clintons; it’s the rest of us.
Because Bill is a man, he won’t have to make the kind of political compromises his wife did—no one will question his dedication to his daughter or his cookie-baking skills, and no one will look at his choice to put his energies into his career and suggest it’s evidence of militancy or interpret it as an indictment of stay-at-home dads. But because Bill is a man, there is no model for his new role as husband to one of the most influential women in America, who could become one of the most powerful women on the planet. He’s making it up as he goes along, by doing what his wife did for him, and what they seem to have long done together: Championing each other, not just as spouses, but as highly-motivated, deeply intelligent, truly talented individuals.
Finally, after all these years, the Clintons live in a still-shifting but radically changed world, one in which a female president is a real possibility. And so now, it’s her turn. He looks good standing right behind her.