The trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, wrapped up earlier this month, and the jury delivered a guilty plea on allegations that the governor gave special favors to a dietary supplements company in exchange for gifts and loans. The case raises the question: what role did Maureen McDonnell play in the couple’s downfall? Writing after the McDonnells’ indictment early this year, Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick criticized the media for focusing on the governor’s wife and her demand for designer shoes, rather than the governor himself, who received golf trips and sports tickets. A wife’s responsibility for her husband’s career success—or, especially, failure—is a theme at least as old as Macbeth.
The dangers of “an imperfect wife”
Particularly in times when women were banned or heavily discouraged from having their own public life, wives have been scrutinized for their behind-the-scenes roles. Back in 1889, Marion Hartland enumerated the ways that church pastors’ wives could derail their husbands’ ministries in the North American Review. She could fail in her unofficial and unpaid leadership position within the church. Or she could succeed too well: “To outshine or outwork her lord is to demonstrate his insufficiency to fill the high and responsible office to which he was elected.” The very existence of a wife and children could make the minister more vulnerable to the whims of his congregation, Hartland writes, quoting a “rich vulgarian” church officer: “The people have the whip-hand when the pastor is a married man. However high-strung he may be, he thinks twice before he upsets the wagon that carries his wife and babies.” Ultimately, Hartland concludes, an imperfect minister’s wife can do her husband plenty of harm, but even the best-suited woman can do him little good. “A clergyman’s wife can, and (Heaven help him and her!) she often does, mar his usefulness, even to utter destruction thereof,” he writes, “But it is not given to her ever to rivet his hold upon the affections of his charge; to place or to maintain him in a desirable position.”
The company-sponsored spouse
A century and a half later, in 1960, Barry Kimmelman, a corporate employee relations director, provided a bulleted list of character flaws that might make a wife dangerous to her husband’s executive career. These included “prone to drink too much,” “domineering,” “mentally underdeveloped compared to her husband” and “excessively interested in her own career or activities, either social or business, to the detriment of her husband’s.” The article, published in California Management Review, calls for companies to evaluate wives, as well as the managers themselves, before making a hiring decision. Kimmelman also suggests that companies offer formal training and development programs to help wives “effectively complement their husbands’ careers,” and to allow “qualified wives to act as representatives of the company in social or public relations activities.” Kimmelman briefly acknowledges that, if wives are essentially working for a corporation, “the question arises of the rate of pay they will receive.” He concludes that the company ought to cover the expenses involved in accompanying husbands on business trips, but no other payment. “A wife wants to help her husband,” he writes. “The opportunity to travel, to be faced with new and challenging problems, to help and observe her husband in action, and to share his success, should amply compensate and provide motivation and incentive.”
Executive wives in the age of feminism
Not long after this was written, of course, the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s came along, with its revolutionary suggestion that women would like to be paid for their work. Feminist scholars drew attention to the economic transactions hidden within marriages, the unpaid work wives have traditionally done to keep their husbands fed, clothed and ready for their jobs. In that tradition, in a 1992 issue of Gender and Society, University of Illinois researcher Marcia L. Bellas attempted to quantify the “bonus” that male academic faculty members received from having a wife, and, particularly, a wife without paid work of her own. Looking at 1984 survey data, and adjusting for other variables like years of employment, she finds married male academics attained higher degrees, made more money, published more and achieved higher professional ranks. The men were likely to make more money and hold a higher degree if their wives didn’t have jobs, though Bellas didn’t find a relationship between non-employed wives and the other two outcomes. Bellas suggests the boost wives give their career husbands includes freeing them from household responsibilities, but also more direct support for their work. Citing previous research on the concept of the “two-person career,” she writes that wives may offer their husbands ideas and help with work like grading papers. Today, of course, many women are pursuing their own careers, sometimes supported by husbands in less prominent positions. The McDonnells’ story may fit an old narrative in which wives are tied, for good or ill, to their husbands’ careers, but new stories are unfolding now. One of the most watched of these will come with the upcoming presidential race, when a wife once known mostly for her connections to her husband’s career will become the more public member of the marriage. The media spotlight on the Clintons is sure to bring new focus to the question of how a husband can help or hurt his wife’s career.