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Rutgers librarian examines how political wives coped with adultery

sketch: wife looking at husband at podium
Illustration by Henry Charles

Political commentators and reporters often have a field day when news breaks that a politician has committed infidelity. News reports will analyze the effect of the development on the elected official, his/her family, the other person involved, the political scene, and the area represented by the official. Subsequent updates will track the efforts of the key actors in the drama to rebuild their lives and reputations and move past the public scandal.

Rarely does any commentator examine the similarities and differences between how the people most affected in such scandals – often the unsuspecting wives – handle the upheaval of the situation and its shattering effects on their self-image, their life circumstances, and their families.

Julie Still, a librarian at the Paul Robeson Library on the Rutgers-Camden, decided to conduct such an analysis and focused on four contemporary public personalities. Using published autobiographies as her source material, Still studied the perspectives of former First Lady and now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Elizabeth Edwards, wife of a former senator, Democratic nominee for vice president and candidate for president; Dina Matos McGreevey, former First Lady of New Jersey; and Jenny Sanford, former First Lady of South Carolina. Her essay was published in February in MP, an online feminist journal.

Still discovered that all four women wrote that to weather the emotional trauma, they drew on the support of friends and family. Another commonality was that each straying spouse revealed his indiscretions in small increments, instead of 'coming clean' in one instance. All four women also had significant work experience on their own, before their marriages, and thus had confidence in their ability to move on from the experience.

Still also notes critical differences in the four situations, such as Mrs. Clinton's choice to remain in her marriage and the short duration of McGreevey's marriage before the scandal broke. Still concludes with observations on why autobiographies by political wives, which frankly address the scandals that enveloped their lives, have become more common.

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Posted February 11, 2011; March 7, 2011 (image added)