Thank you, Jenny Sanford, and bravo, Elin Nordegren. It’s about bloody time.
These ladies should be applauded for leaving their nightmare husbands — unorthodox acts in this post-feminist age, where powerful men, from the White House on down, seem to think that they can do whatever they please and get away with it. We’re living in a culture saturated with mistresses and interns, sexting and sex addiction, and a parade of stony-faced wives somehow putting up with it all. A woman demanding a divorce these days is almost as radical as keeping your maiden name was in the fifties, but Jenny and Elin’s activist moves offer a glimmer of hope.
It’s unfortunate, but their decisions are practically groundbreaking. For women who consider themselves feminists, it has been an especially wearying period: They’ve watched as a string of high-profile men — from Spitzer to Sanford, John Edwards to Dave Letterman — collapsed into heaps of sexually entangled sawdust. In all of these cases, a presumably devastated wife and mother was left in the wake. Meanwhile, outside the confines of the broken home du jour, female observers turned to each other, wondering if — finally — this would be the one where the wife would walk out on her so clearly undeserving husband. Until now, the wives stuck around every time, putting women in a painful place of cognitive dissonance: Are we to defend women who have good reason to end their marriages but don’t? Shouldn’t we respect their private choices? Or are we to indulge our worst fears and infer that these are extremely public examples of the dangers of dependency?
The fact is, many of these now-humiliated wives gave up their careers a long time ago to focus on being perfect partners to their high-powered husbands. Before her husband became a political player and she left the workforce, Silda Spitzer was a corporate lawyer at Skadden, Arps and Chase Manhattan Bank; Elizabeth Edwards, also a lawyer, worked for the North Carolina attorney general and the law firm Merriman, Nicholls, and Crampton until she opted to opt out. Had these women pulled off the miraculous act of nurturing their careers while nurturing their families, they very well might be pulling in seven-figure salaries at the peak of their profession. But they deferred to the dreams of their men, and so their humiliation took on an extra shade of horror: From the public perspective, their individual lives centered around their spouses’ aspirations.
In reality, most of the wives in question are critical behind-the-scenes players in their famous husbands’ careers: running their campaigns, dazzling their associates, and raising their children while the hubbies go off and conquer the world. With no financial compensation for any of it, they’re technically reliant on the men to support them and their kids. But this isn’t necessarily just about financial dependency. Elizabeth, Silda, and Letterman’s wife, Regina Lasko, would likely remain wealthy, owing to hefty divorce settlements or family resources. These women almost suffer from a dependency of purpose: It may be difficult giving up a relationship that serves as a sort of career, even once it’s damaged by toxic revelations.
Jenny Sanford and Elin Nordegren might change how we think about these family fallouts. Does this make them feminist heroines? Not exactly. But by leaving — no matter if she’s able to do so because of her independent wealth, or if, like Sanford, she has grander plans to use her husband’s loutish behavior to jump-start her own political career — their decisions could begin to repair the damage done to women over these past couple of years. It’s not right to lay the responsibility on the victim, but there is something to be said for the old-fashioned notion of self-reliance. By walking out the door, Jenny and Elin could be taking the first steps toward reclaiming it.