Sometimes it's hard to be a woman. Especially a smart, savvy woman who works in politics, giving all your love to just one man whom everyone wants you to up and leave. In the wake of Huma Abedin’s appearance alongside her contrite, mayoral-hopeful husband last week, there have been calls from every corner for her to do the opposite of what her mentor Hillary Clinton did when she first found herself in a similar situation during the 1992 presidential campaign: Just divorce him already.
When the Clintons appeared on 60 Minutes to discuss allegations that Bill had been having an affair with Gennifer Flowers, Hillary said, “You know, I'm not sitting here — some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I'm sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he's been through and what we've been through together.” Wynette — who released her ode to marital resignation in 1968, the same year that Hillary became a Democrat — declared the future First Lady’s statement offensive to every woman willing to stick around after her man does things she doesn’t understand.
While these aren’t exactly good times for Anthony Weiner — he did confess he’s less happy since running for office, and his poll numbers are dropping faster than his pants — they are undeniably bad times for Huma. She’s been pitied. She’s been scorned. She’s been called frumpy and wan. Even her friends are “slapping-my-forehead astounded” that she’s chosen a stand-by-your-man response that seems almost paleolithically pre-feminist.
Huma’s declaration that she loves him and she forgives him is being met with far more confusion than Hillary’s was 21 years ago, partly because, over the past several decades, Americans have become way more relaxed about divorce. A recent Gallup poll says only 24 percent think it’s wrong. Even as splitting up grows more acceptable, a full 91 percent of Americans morally object to infidelity — that’s more than say they’re opposed to polygamy. This is an increase from previous decades. If that number seems out of alignment with Americans’ general trend toward more sexual freedom, perhaps it’s because, as Heather Havrilesky wrote recently in her advice column at the Awl, “Cheating is called cheating for a reason. The issue on the table is honesty, not sex.”
We’re also baffled by Huma’s choice because women no longer need to be professionally affixed to a man to make inroads in business or politics — especially when they’ve got a résumé like hers. Two decades ago, Hillary needed Bill, that much we could understand. But looking at Huma and Anthony together on the dais, it was clear who was holding the other back. This was no 60 Minutes interview from 1992. (Bill, even when mired in scandal, was never such a hapless laughingstock.) Huma, it seemed, should be doing what Hillary was never able to.
Just two months after their 60 Minutes appearance, Bill had an opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to Hillary. At a March primary debate, rival candidate Jerry Brown accused him of sending state business to Hillary’s law firm. “I don’t care what you say about me, but you ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife,” Bill retorted, complete with his signature finger wag. Of course, critics still found a way to spin this as a negative for Hillary — proof she was, in fact, the “little woman.” But it did reveal some reciprocity in their relationship, and thrust her in the spotlight for something other than weathering his infidelities. (What’s worse? Crooked lawyer or betrayed wife?) Huma has enjoyed no such relief. Save for a friendly Vogue profile in 2007 and some society-page coverage of their wedding, she tried to stay out of the national spotlight before news of the affair broke. And now she’s associated with it almost exclusively. No wonder she was, admittedly, “a little nervous” as she stepped up to the microphone last week.
Weiner, wrote Joshua Green in Bloomberg Businessweek, “learned from the example of Bill Clinton’s infidelities that you can survive a scandal if you can maintain your wife’s support and simply refuse to drop out.” But Huma is even more important to Anthony than Hillary was to Bill. In order to have even a shot at winning, Weiner has admitted, he has to tell his story as a redemption narrative. And to do that, he needs a redeemer. That’s where Huma comes in. The New York Times described her as “his crucial character witness, a glamorous and widely admired figure who reassured New Yorkers.”
As far as the public is concerned, though, Huma’s under no obligation to play this role. Hillary had been with Bill for a full fourteen years when he first admitted his extramarital antics to her. After years in the governor’s mansion, they had a way of working together and an established narrative about their relationship. Huma and Anthony, by contrast, have spent a fraction of that time together. Just a year after she married him, while she was pregnant with their child, he was doing things that she didn't understand. “What is going on? What’s happening to our lives?” she asked after he finally confessed his penchant for dick pics and phone sex.
Our lives. Though Huma is not a public figure on Hillary's scale, she’s undeniably driven and ambitious, and has been in high-level politics long enough to know that when you get married — especially to a public figure — you're tying your reputation to theirs. He acts like a goddamn fool; you end up looking just as foolish. Despite the Sydneys and the Gennifers and the Monicas and the dozens of others, both Hillary and Huma seem to genuinely love the men they’ve married. And they’ve stayed, in large part, because of that. The difference is that “Hillary Clinton has learned how to eat scandal for breakfast. She goes on and on and on,” Gail Sheehy said on WNYC last week. “Huma is a baby in the water here.”
Weiner’s affair threatens to define Huma in a way Bill’s never fully defined Hillary. Sheehy advised Huma to “do what Hillary waited until way late to do, which is to declare her own political identity.” Not just show the world she loves him, but to show the world more of her own professional skills. ’Cause after all, Wynette reminds us, he's just a man.