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Why Stand By?

Silda Spitzer and the risks of postfeminist domesticity.

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A visual interpretation of the governor’s very bad week by John Baldessari.  

Which is worse? The horror of realizing you are married to a guy who plays hide the cigar with his intern or haggles over his hookers, or the humiliation of participating in telling the world about it?

Silda Wall Spitzer’s facial expressions during her husband’s resignation—wounded, proud, even loving—mapped the complicated inner life of a person defending a choice she had made at a moment when it had never seemed less defensible. Hillary Clinton, many people thought, had made a cold calculation by staying with a husband who certainly did have sexual relations with that woman, among others—and since Clinton is currently the first woman with a real shot at the American presidency, her assessment may well have been a shrewd one. But Silda Spitzer has never had any political aspirations of her own, and by all accounts was ambivalent, at best, about her husband’s. How could she bear to be in the same building, let alone stand on the same podium, as a man who managed to sound self-righteous even as he admitted to violating any sense of right and wrong? Why would she continue to offer such unflagging loyalty and encourage her husband to stay in office when she knew as well as the rest of us that he did illegal “things that, like, you might not think were safe” with “Kristen” and her colleagues from the Emperors Club?

Last Wednesday, Silda Wall Spitzer was caught in a trap she’d inadvertently set for herself. Like half of the best-educated and most-privileged women in this country who have babies, she relinquished her high-powered career to devote herself to supporting her spouse and caring for their three daughters. However traditional this idea of wifely duty, it was an open-eyed decision, mulled over endlessly and made on modern, postfeminist terms. Later, in 2005, she even sought Clinton’s advice on becoming the First Lady of New York: “I figured, here’s a woman who also met her husband at law school, who had been a lawyer with a firm, whose husband was a state attorney general,” Silda Spitzer said in 2006. “There really aren’t that many role models for this.” But Hillary Clinton never stopped pursuing her own professional agenda. The Clinton relationship has always mixed romance and ambition, and while the calculated nature of this bargain has at times made Hillary seem less than human, it’s also enabled her, at age 60, to be in the prime of her professional life. That’s a stage many more men reach than women.

During his 2006 campaign, Eliot Spitzer said of his wife, “The fact that she believed in me enough to put her very promising legal career on hold was a great source of inspiration.” While this move may well have helped him achieve his goals, it put Silda Spitzer in the nationally televised bind we witnessed last week. This is a Harvard-educated woman who was once a corporate lawyer who made more money than her husband and was proud of it. But since 1994, the year Silda opted out of the workforce to witness her husband’s first run for attorney general, all her formidable drive has had to be channeled into his career. Fourteen years later, retreat wasn’t possible. As the rest of the state called for his head, Silda told her husband to fight for power. It was a moment Hillary Clinton, no doubt, could have advised her about. But for Silda Spitzer, even more was at stake. And she will not have the consolation of her own career as she comes to terms with the man she gave it up for. In a way, it’s the saddest part of the story, and it exposes the risks women take when they make certain kinds of choices—things that, after Silda, they might not think are safe.


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