The Barbie-fication of candidates’ wives

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Women’s liberation found me in the heady days of the 1960s, when women along with other hard-pressed groups were inspired by the Black freedom struggle to demand big changes. The possibilities were endless and we all won many battles.

Ever since, the moneyed elite has funded a vicious backlash, marshaling vast forces in the media, churches, and right-wing think tanks, to push their ultra-conservative, anti-feminist agenda.

Their backward push stands out most absurdly in the image-crafting of candidates’ spouses.

Take this presidential run — please! The public has been bombarded with cardboard caricatures of political helpmates who have nothing to say outside of narrowly defined women’s topics and rote praise for their husband’s idiotic pronouncements.

First, the Republicans. All are blonde, near blonde or used-to-be blonde. Initially they were, as the saying goes, seen but not heard. When they were actually quoted, it was strictly in the barefoot-and-pregnant mold. Karen Santorum, Ann Romney and Carol Paul trumpeted their credentials as full-time mothers. Paul: “[Ron] takes care of the country, and I take care of the kids.” Callista Gingrich one-upped her by vowing that she was giving up her “opinion” for Lent! Karen Santorum intoned that it was “God’s will” that her hubby would win. Oy vey!

But things are little better on the Democrat side of the twin party charade. Michelle Obama, once a hospital administrator, has been reduced to trying to prove she’s not an “angry Black woman,” and being praised for her firm biceps, “hot legs” and high fashion. Her most substantive issue? A program to improve children’s nutrition and exercise. OK, a serious public health issue, but also calculated to offend absolutely no one. Even so, the raving bigot Rush Limbaugh denounced her “uppity-ism” for pressing this project. Which only proves my point about the straitjacket the First Lady finds herself in.

It was not always thus. Abigail Adams was an early advocate of education and property rights for women, and a vehement opponent of slavery. She famously warned the Continental Congress that if they did not remember the rights of the ladies, “we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”

Eleanor Roosevelt took bold stances against racial prejudice and segregation. She advocated for women’s rights, and vehemently opposed the World War II internment of Japanese Americans. Lady Bird Johnson defended the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act in the following presidential election by touring eight southern states, several times facing down angry crowds. Republican Betty Ford was a passionate feminist, agitated for the Equal Rights Amendment, and supported abortion.

These women were able to express controversial opinions. They didn’t face the current level of relentless rightwing pressure to conform to an utterly powerless stereotype of womanhood.

But a funny thing happened along the way to the Stepford wives. Rick Santorum’s campaign ran into serious trouble when he started blasting contraception (surprise, surprise). Wife Karen was called upon to do damage control, saying she advised him to drop the subject!

Meanwhile, Ann Romney stepped up to pull her husband’s sagging campaign out of the fire after a series of his gaffs demonstrated how out of touch this multi-millionaire is with the working class. She quipped “maybe I should just do all the talking.” She was even seen wearing — gasp — pants.

All pretty thin on content, but obviously designed to make voters think that these wives are not mere decorations, but actually have some influence and individuality.

Well here’s a bulletin on this dog and pony show. Window dressing isn’t going to hack it. Women, who are the ones to hold families and communities together, are major casualties in the ongoing economic crisis. They and peoples of color have lost the most jobs, homes, savings and social services.

These appalling facts are not going to be papered over by millionaire stay-at-home moms “asserting” their spunkiness. Nor by a bland public education campaign touting diet and exercise. Our peril is real, and we demand real solutions. And soon, since the system clearly has no intention of doing anything about it, we women — along with a rainbow movement of good friends — may just carry out Abigail’s threat!

Megan Cornish is a retired electrical utility power dispatcher, feminist activist, and staff writer for the Freedom Socialist. She can be reached at

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