I used to think we should get rid of First Ladies. Plenty of countries manage without a national wife: Cherie Blair aside (and how long would Britain’s answer to Hillary have lasted over here?), can you name the spouse of the man who leads France, Germany, China, Canada or Russia? And no, “Mrs. Putin” doesn’t count as a correct answer. Is Lula married? What about Ariel Sharon? Is there a Mrs. General Musharraf ready with a nice cup of tea when her man comes home after walking the nuclear weapons? Do you care? The ongoing public inquest into Dr. Judith Steinberg makes me see, however, that we need First Ladies: Without them, American women might actually believe that they are liberated, that modern marriage is an equal partnership, that the work they are trained for and paid to do is important whether or not they are married, and that it is socially acceptable for adult women in the year 2004 to possess distinct personalities–even quirks! Without First Ladies, a woman might imagine that whether she keeps or changes her name is a private, personal choice, the way the young post-post-feminists always insist it is when they write those annoying articles explaining why they are now calling themselves Mrs. My Husband.
The attack on Dr. Judy began on the front page of the New York Times (you know, the ultraliberal paper) with a January 13 feature by Jodi Wilgoren, full of catty remarks about her “sensible slipper flats and no makeup or earrings” and fatuous observations from such academic eminences as Myra Gutin, “who has taught a course on first ladies at Rider University in New Jersey for 20 years.” It seems that Dr. Steinberg “fits nowhere” in Professor Gutin’s categorizations. Given that she counts Pat Nixon as an “emerging spokeswoman,” maybe that’s not such a bad thing. “The doctors Dean seem to be in need of some tips on togetherness and building a healthy political marriage,” opined Maureen Dowd, a single woman who, even if she weds tomorrow, will be in a nursing home by the time she’s been married for twenty-three years like the Deans. Tina Brown, another goddess of the hearth, compared Dr. Judy to mad Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre. On ABC News’s Primetime, Diane Sawyer put both Deans on the grill, with, according to Alexander Stille, who counted for the LA Times, ninety negative questions out of a total of ninety-six. Blinking and nodding like a kindly nurse coaxing a lunatic off a window ledge, Sawyer acted as if she wanted to understand Dr. Judy’s bizarre behavior: She keeps her maiden name professionally (just like, um, Diane Sawyer, a k a Mrs. Mike Nichols); she doesn’t follow the day-to-day of politics (like, what, 90 percent of Americans?); she enjoyed getting a rhododendron from Howard for her birthday. Throughout this sexist inquisition, Dr. Steinberg remained as gentle as a fawn, polite and unassuming–herself. “I’m not a very ‘thing’ person,” she said when Sawyer pressed too close on that all-important rhododendron. She allowed as how she was not too interested in clothes–whereupon Sawyer cut to a photo of Laura Bush, smiling placidly in a red ball gown.
I don’t think Dr. Judy is weird at all. She’s leading a normal, modern, middle-class-professional life. She has been married forever. She has two children. She likes camping and bike riding and picnics. She volunteers. She has work she loves, as a community physician–not, you’ll note, as a cold-hearted status-obsessed selfish careerist user, as professional women are always accused of being. (Let’s also note that she is not someone who was ever, even once, during her husband’s twelve-year stint as governor of Vermont, accused of using her marriage to advance a friend or enrich herself or obtain special perks and privileges.) And here’s another secret: Not too many women in long marriages want to spend their lives gazing rapturously at their husband for the benefit of the camera every time he opens his mouth. Vermonters liked Judy Dean–they had no problem with her low-key, independent style. But, then, if you listen to the press, you know Vermonters–they’re weird, too.