11.30.09

The Year of Women Fighting Back

South Carolina’s first lady Jenny Sanford is ending her marriage after what she calls “many unsuccessful efforts at reconciliation” following her husband’s affair. Rebecca Dana on Sanford and other women who came out swinging this year. Plus, view our gallery of women who fought back.

South Carolina’s first lady Jenny Sanford is ending her marriage after what she calls “ many unsuccessful efforts at reconciliation” following her husband’s affair. Rebecca Dana on Sanford and other women who came out swinging this year. Plus, view our gallery of women who fought back.

Even before Tiger Woods’ wife, Elin Nordegren, took a golf club to his Escalade, 2009 was already shaping up to be the Year of Women Not Taking Shit.

Gone, for the moment at least, are the tearful press conferences where a puffy-eyed political wife stares at her feet while her husband confesses his carnal sins. Gone are the cheerful sham marriages held up as totems for the rest of us to emulate. Gone is the nobility of quietly carrying on. We are now fully in the season of not standing by your man.

Whether you should throw a nine iron at him—if, in fact, that’s what the delicate Mrs. Woods did—is not the question. As with all things, there are good, bad, and potentially dangerous and illegal ways of fighting back. The point is: Women are fighting back.

Click Image to View Our Gallery of Women Who Fought Back

"There’s something for everyone in these public divorces or marital problems," says filmmaker Nora Ephron, creator of some of the most iconic female characters of the last three decades. "Since we can’t know the truth of anyone’s marriage or anyone’s breakup, the truth just becomes completely personal. These people become Rorschachs for other women."

In June, we finally got our first truly heroic scorned political wife in Jenny Sanford. Faced with news that her husband, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, had been cavorting with a hot Argentine, the elegant, religious, former investment banker declined to pull a "Silda Spitzer" and saddle up next to her over-tanned Republican spouse for his meandering mea culpa. Instead, she released a sternly worded statement and took off with her sons to a house in the country. She gave a strong, unapologetic interview to Vogue and looked lovely in the accompanying photo.

“It’s all about women feeling their own power and getting comfortable with their own anger,” says actress Susie Essman, who plays Susie Green on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Eventually, she packed some boxes, called some friends, and moved the hell out.

And on Friday, she filed for divorce with a terse statement saying there were "many unsuccessful efforts at reconciliation."

There’s been a burgeoning movement of women like Jenny Sanford—not a movement in any particular direction, just a movement away. Taylor Swift not only humiliated that virginal twerp Joe Jonas, who dumped her over the phone last year, but turned her heartbreak into a hit record, a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live, and a victory at the MTV Video Music Awards that begat another moment of self-styled girl power, when she stood down bullying from Kanye West. Now Swift is dating international heartthrob Taylor Lautner, star of Twilight and a million teenage girls’ fantasies. And let’s not forget Beyoncé, diva-preacher to single ladies everywhere, who stepped in to save Swift at the VMAs.

And Hillary Clinton, the ultimate modern jilted wife, showed who wore the pantsuit, when she snapped during an interview in Africa, declaring that she was the secretary of State, dammit, not Bill. So what if it was all the result of a translation error, if the questioner wasn’t actually asking her husband’s opinion of a Chinese loan to the Congo? Hillary, queen of calculated indifference, finally asserted her independence—ferociously. (Even fictional women are getting into the act: On Mad Men, Betty Draper finally left serial womanizing husband, Don.)

"It’s all about women feeling their own power and getting comfortable with their own anger," says actress Susie Essman, who plays the ultimate no-shit-taking wife, Susie Green, on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Essman, whose book What Would Susie Say?: Bullshit Wisdom About Love, Life and Comedy, was published this fall, says women come up to her all the time to tell her they just wish they could talk to their husbands the way her character to hers (with lots of insults and f-bombs).

There are plenty of other examples, some better feminist icons than others but each, in her way, newly liberated: Kate Gosselin may be a shrew but she’s not a sucker. She didn’t stand for Jon’s philandering or his lame attempts at mitigating the damage—she didn’t accept the modest bouquet of flowers he offered up at their divorce hearing. Meanwhile, Bristol Palin, with a newborn baby and mounting pressure from no less a force than the Christian right, still didn’t marry cheeseball nude model Levi Johnston this year. And then there are the many women not letting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi get away with his truly epic promiscuity parade: His wife, Veronica Lario, who is now demanding £40 million a year in spousal support; Patrizia D’Addario, the prostitute who dished on her night with the P.M. and is turning her story into a book.

At a time when every inchoate raving that tumbles forth from Sarah Palin is taken as a referendum on the progress of the women’s movement, it’s nice to see some prominent women refusing to play to type: the teenage pro-lifer staring down single parenthood; the pretty, press-shy athlete’s wife just maybe, possibly, not being pacified by a "Kobe special"—some fat bauble the size of her head. The thing about feminism is that it’s not about equal outcome but equal opportunity: the chance to make a graceful exit from a bad relationship or to smash the holy hell out of a cheating husband’s shiny Cadillac.

"I think real feminism is women’s recognizing their own ability," says Nan Talese, senior vice president of Doubleday and, for 50 years, the wife of journalist Gay Talese, author of the classic infidelity tome Thy Neighbor's Wife. "And also, very importantly, without taking away from other members of their family, it is about women being able to pursue their own goals."

Amen, sister. And if that fails, pass the nine iron.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.