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Women and Power

The wife looking for power and the husband who has it are dependent on a lot of outside circumstances at best. But the difference between public and private conclusions about women and power comes out in odd ways.

In Washington, for instance, it was a much-discussed fact that many of the men around President Kennedy got divorced when the Administration ended. Most men assumed that the husbands had wanted out all along, but refrained from leaving because the publicity would be bad. Many of their wives, who worry about what their lives would be like should their husbands leave, assumed the same. But several of the hostesses and one woman high up in the State Department—some of the few in Washington with identities not dependent on marriage—wondered if the wives hadn’t had something to do with it. “Why stay?” as one hostess said. “The Kennedy court was obviously their high point. Better get out and find some other interesting man fast, because it’s going to be straight downhill.”

Few wives, even if they have made power marriages, are that clear-eyed about it. Going along with the women-aren’t-interested-in-power theory, they may assume that they couldn’t possibly be, and therefore the attraction they feel must be something else. Power translates into sex, and admiration into love. But power and sex are only the same in anticipation, so the wife—who still feels her own power urge satisfied through her husband—may find herself having an affair with a more ordinary man, without any thought of leaving her husband. That’s the lady married to a bigwig who goes out with her garage attendant on the side.

If she loves him, or is convinced that she does, she often finds herself jealous of the work whose results attracted her in the first place. Political wives who rarely see their husbands except on national holidays and campaign planes; business wives who get tired of having all birthday and Christmas gifts selected by secretaries; every wife of a powerful man who finds she can get anything except his attention: life and fiction are full of them.

“Never marry an important man,” said a girl who observed all this from her vantage point as secretary in the White House. “Go out with them or have affairs with them, but find some other kind of husband.”

According to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, even Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t always enjoy her position. On hearing of her husband’s first election to the Presidency, she is supposed to have run from the room in tears, and said, “Now, I’ve lost my identity.” One New York woman complains that people she has had dinner with don’t recognize her the next day in the street without her husband’s famous face. A woman who marries a powerful man gets an instant identity all right, but it’s his.

Still, acquiring power through men remains the only sure-fire acceptable way. Margaret Mead notes that this society approves women’s power only if it’s been inherited in some sense, and that widows of admired men are therefore the only women leaders to be widely accepted. Inheriting a seat in Congress is liked, but winning it is not. The activism of Eleanor Roosevelt won more affection and less resentment after the death of F.D.R.

Even Jacqueline Kennedy, regarded as ornamental but frivolous before her husband’s death, got all kinds of serious suggestions that she become Ambassador to France, or even Johnson’s Vice President, immediately after. But as she was quoted in a New York newspaper profile, “There are two kinds of women: those who want power in the world, and those who want power in bed”; the clear implication being that she was the latter. And, almost equally clear, that she disapproved of the former.

Some women solve the problem of being limited to one husband’s identity by having several. One New York widow is said to have married once for money, once for power, and once for social standing, so that she emerged, if not as herself, at least as the author of an anthology. She fell somewhere between Mrs. Kennedy’s categories, but then so do most women. Sexual power may be enough by itself. (As in the case of girls who enjoy conquering powerful men, and thereby making them pathetic and human. “It’s hard to explain,” said one television actress, who was having an affair with a much-feared Texas business executive, “but seeing him pad around in shorts to bring me breakfast, or knowing he’s switching the schedules of millions of dollars and hundreds of lives just so he can get to New York and see me—that gives me some feeling of accomplishment.”) Or it may be a direct path to worldly power, as in the case of many girls who marry for it, or get jobs and favors as the result of affairs. But it’s rare that the excitement and rewards are totally detached from the outside world.


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