First Ladies standing by their men

Article by Catherine Lambert /
Sunday Herald Sun /
May 13, 2012 /
Click here to view original /

THE phrase “behind every great man, there’s a great woman” is believed to have first appeared in 1945.

And it’s starting to seem dated. The great men of the modern world have their women firmly beside them, not behind them.

Partnership between men and women has never been more apparent as a social model. The wives and partners of today’s world leaders are mostly significant in their own right, educated, successful in careers – and they happen to be attractive.

It is not about having a pretty ornament on the strong man’s arm, but a strong woman by his side.

The news this week of Valerie Trierweiler, partner to new French President Francois Hollande, has further clarified the emergence of the new style of first lady power.

Her nickname is “The Rottweiler” because she slapped someone for what she perceived to be a sexist comment. She is a journalist who shows no signs of giving up her career and, without her, President Hollande would look dangerously bland.

News that Hollande has even made his ex-wife and mother to his four children, Segolene Royal, the President of the National Assembly is even more surprising – and so very French.

That is a crucial part of the new political breed. Presidents, their wives or partners and seemingly even ex-partners, are presented very much as a harmonious, sometimes surprising, package.

University of Melbourne social researcher Dr Lauren Rosewarne said the male leader’s choice of partner instantly ingratiated him to female voters.

While US presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s wife Ann admits he is uncharismatic, the seemingly nondescript Hollande, ousted president Nicolas Sarkozy or Germany’s President Christian Wulff become much more interesting when pictured with their very interesting wives.

“These men, partnered to feisty women, make us think they must have something going for them,” Dr Rosewarne said.

“If they can snag this beautiful, strong woman, they suddenly become more sexy, intelligent and attractive.”

Michelle Obama is widely attributed with adding to her husband’s popularity. She does not take a back seat to policy and is representative of the modern American woman.

In the same way that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis set style trends and was such a popular first lady that she was more like a princess, Michelle Obama will be remembered for her style. The difference now is that her strength and intelligence have had equal impact.

“Michelle is Obama’s secret weapon,” Dr Rosewarne said. “She had a very successful career in her own right that she had to give up to become the First Lady. But, if she had to make that career sacrifice, why not channel it in other areas?

“Here is a woman who’s really good at public engagements, has her own areas of political interest and is so likeable. Why not use those qualities? She has been instrumental in his success.”

The prettier model wives – Carla Bruni, Syrian first lady Asma Al-Assad and former Italian president Silvio Berlusconi’s second wife Veronica Lario – present a different image. Lario was rarely seen in public, preferring to hide from the glare, but Bruni was more public and, with her quaint if limp musical style, added another dimension to the ultra-conservative Sarkozy.

“Carla Bruni had a buoying effect on her husband and she was a distraction in the same way a celebrity would have been,” Dr Rosewarne said.

But cultural history lecturer at the National Centre for Australian Studies, Dr Liz Conor, said first ladies were expected to be attractive whether former models or former career women.

It is an expectation she argues is unfair and undemocratic.

“People don’t get to vote for her and yet she probably has a good deal of influence,” Dr Conor said.

“Perhaps not in the nitty-gritty of policy, but the overall political approaches would have to be similar, otherwise why would they be together?”

YET there was not any expectation of certain first ladies such as Sonia McMahon or Carla Bruni having informed, helpful input.

On the other hand those qualities were expected, and received, from Hillary Clinton when her husband Bill Clinton was US president and now with Michelle Obama.

“These women have significant influence and are intelligent, articulate and critically informed and the men trust their judgment,” she said. “They ask each other’s advice.”

As a concept, the “first lady” originated with Eleanor Roosevelt, but it was really Jackie Kennedy who took the title to another level of importance.

The current wave are no less important, but their significance is deeper and perhaps representative of wider social change. They represent marriages which are less patriarchal and more consultative.

Equals in terms of status, intelligence and accomplishment, they are partnerships for the average voters to both admire and relate to.

“They represent the many different functions a wife provides these days,” Dr Rosewarne said.

“Wives offer a huge amount of support in many different areas now. There is the standard model of companionship, but other support they provide is enormous. Previously wives took a back role but we’re now seeing wives taking roles that reflect diversity of womanhood as well as being politically savvy and aware of community.”

Monash University politics lecturer Dr Zareh Ghazarian said the concept was more American than European and carried even less weight in countries under the Westminster system. It wasn’t until Tammy Fraser entered The Lodge with PM Malcolm Fraser that the Australian first lady even had a secretary or staff of her own.

“We don’t elect the leaders of our political parties and so we don’t elect the first ladies either,” Dr Ghazarian said.

‘THE spouse or partner of the prime minister in Australia is like a bonus, rather than someone who can go out there and change votes.

“Janette Howard worked hard for John’s particular advancement but not on the campaign trail as much as Michelle Obama.

“Now, Tim Mathieson (PM Julia Gillard’s partner) is also seen but not heard.

“Even Therese Rein (former PM Kevin Rudd’s wife) was in a similar position.

“You would often see her but she didn’t have an active role in day-to-day politics.

“In Australia, the person the PM is married to just comes along for the ride.”

There is also more of a tendency in Australia towards modesty in the reporting of political leaders’ private lives, whereas every detail is revealed in the US.

The weight given to the title in the US has gradually spread to Europe where there is a predilection for pomp and pageantry.

The first lady has a queen-like role to play in older countries, though Michelle Obama has a similar significance in the US – where there is an obsession with her wardrobe likened to royal style observers in the UK.

The European first ladies generally add another dimension of interest to their powerful husbands while holding significant power as well.

“The interesting thing about Valerie Trierweiler, the new French president’s partner, is that she is a real mover and shaker,” Dr Ghazarian said.

“She is very fiery, feisty, and not afraid of doing things that she believes are right and proper. She has added an element of intrigue to Hollande, who has been seen to be a bland character in public life.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wife Lyudmila presents a different image. She is rarely seen in public or referred to by her husband.

“Putin is like a terminator – does he even have a wife?” Dr Ghazarian said. “We have seen him on hunting expeditions, uncovering fossils and he is Mr Action. It’s as though he doesn’t have time for wives or domestic duties because he is so occupied working for Mother Russia.”

BUT most first ladies prefer not to be hidden away, proud of their contribution and achievements.

Annita Keating, wife of former PM Paul, summed up the role when she addressed parliamentary wives at The Lodge in 1993: “We don’t debate in Parliament and we are not elected, but we are just as important to Australia’s democracy as our partners … we lead our own lives and we make our own contribution.”