Editor’s Note: Melissa Harris-Perry wrote the following appreciation of Elizabeth Edwards in May 2009. We resurface it on the occasion of Edwards’s death.
I admit it. I was a John Edwards supporter.
Having attended college and graduate school in North Carolina, the Tarheel state offered opportunities for my first involvement in political campaigns. In 1998 I posted fliers and stuffed envelopes for Edwards’s Senate campaign.
Early in 2006 I believed that Edwards had a real opportunity to win the Democratic presidential nomination. I suspected Obama had an insufficient ground organization to effectively challenge Clinton. (Hilarious in hindsight, I know.) I also suspected that Hillary was too polarizing and off-message to win. (I was a little closer on that prediction.) Edwards was my early pick, in part because he is a charming, white Southerner and whenever the Democrats had managed to win in the modern era it was with this kind of candidate: think Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
In assessing his electability I counted Elizabeth Edwards among John’s greatest political assets. Elizabeth is smart, tough and unafraid of political engagement. And her personal biography made John much more likeable. Elizabeth was the mother who supported her husband’s turn to politics after the tragic death of her son. Elizabeth was the woman who chose, in the face of this tragedy, to have more children much later than she had planned. To do this Elizabeth endured fertility treatments and the side effects that accompany them. Then Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer. Hers is a compelling narrative shared, in parts, by many contemporary women. Hers is a story that resonates with women across partisan differences.
And John loved her.
Yes, he indulged in expensive haircuts. Yes, he seemed a little too slick and too sappy at the same time. Yes, his message was a bit one-note. But he loved a smart, funny, intense woman who gained weight and lost her breasts. John’s love and admiration for Elizabeth was among his most interesting personality traits. So campaign funds misappropriation aside, when John Edwards’s affair was revealed it was more than a routine ethical breach. It wiped away one of the things that had anchored him as a compelling public figure.
It was for these reasons that I followed Elizabeth Edwards’s return to public life last week. She was vilified by some and pitied by others. But more than the personal details of her estrangement, Elizabeth Edwards represents a broader problem of the role of women in American politics. I get the sense that Elizabeth is as angry about being cheated politically as much as being cheated on personally.
Elizabeth Edwards was relying on John to make a space for her political work, a way for her ability to impact policy and a forum for her to use her political voice. When John was silenced she was too. She is trying to reclaim her voice and space in public life.
Far too many women still find that the path to political prominence and influence relies on their intimate relationships with men. Many educated, aggressive, public-minded women have found their way to political influence by being the daughter or wife of a powerful man. This remains true even in this moment of seeming unprecedented political achievement by women. Nancy Pelosi is the first female Speaker of the House, but she is also the daughter of a powerful Democratic mayor. Hillary Rodham Clinton put 18 million cracks in the political glass ceiling, but her political career rests firmly on the shoulders of her past-president husband. Even Caroline Kennedy’s new political relevance this election cycle was firmly rooted in the biographies of her family’s men.
I don’t mean to diminish the qualifications or capacity of these women. Quite the opposite; I believe the real tragedy is that many women who are deeply capable and superb potential leaders end up withering in the shadow of men rather than making independent contributions.
When political women rely on political men they are vulnerable to men’s choices, particularly their personal and sexual choices. For years I was thinking of Elizabeth as a political resource for her husband, all the time forgetting she was a political resource for the nation. The point was not how Elizabeth helped John get elected, but why it wasn’t Elizabeth all along running for office herself.
I am tired of seeing women’s political achievement as an adjunct to that of the men in their lives. One of the critical tasks we face as a nation is unclogging the political pipeline to allow women’s talent to flow more freely. That commitment is why I am proud to be associated with the Center for American Women and Politics here in New Jersey, which is actively working to prepare women to run for political office.
For Mother’s Day I think I’ll make a donation to EMILY’s list… in Elizabeth Edwards name.