07.02.11

No More Mrs. Good Wife

The Shriver-Schwarzenegger divorce is just the latest blow to a storied institution: the unbreakable political marriage. By Jessica Bennett

We’ve watched that scene a thousand times over: cheating husband, prominent politician, admits to infidelity, supporting wife stands in the background. She is The Good Wife, as the hit CBS show calls her—a quiet font of support, the face etched in our minds long after we forget his words of apology.

We saw it in Dina McGreevey who stood alongside the former New Jersey governor, James McGreevey, when he came out as a “gay American” and admitted to having put his gay lover on staff. We saw it in Silda Spitzer, in her red, white, and blue kerchief—American flag as the backdrop—the dark circles under her eyes giving it all away. And we saw it, back in 2003, in Maria Shriver, who defended her now-disgraced husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, against not one, or even two, but a dozen women who’d accused the former governor of groping them.

But Shriver is marching to a different tune now. Since learning that her husband of 25 years fathered a child with a former housekeeper, she’s moved out. Some have speculated that, through her confidantes, she was the one who leaked the story to the press. Either way. On Friday, she was the one who filed divorce papers in Los Angeles, citing “irreconcilable differences” and applying for joint custody of the couple’s two youngest children.

Could it be that dutiful women are finally taking a stand against their philandering husbands? Can we finally call it quits on the political good wife?

Let's hope so. As any political junkie knows, the politician's wife fills a complex psychological role in a campaign, and public office once it's over. Her marriage is essential to strategy. She is the gatekeeper. Her every move is painstakingly investigated and examined. She must possess grace, modesty, and good fashion sense. Enough smarts to speak before the cameras, but not so much smarts that you overpower your husband. "Everything you do is scrutinized,” Cindy McCain told NEWSWEEK last month.

It’s a grueling job—and one that forces women to conform to every stereotype in the book. Shriver gave up her career—and much of her politics—for her husband. A good political wife must be sexy but not too sexy, smart but not too smart, opinionated but not too opinionated. (In other words: One step forward, two steps back.) "Everything you do is criticized—your clothes are ugly; you’re not doing enough; your politics are questioned. It gets mean,” Jenny Sanford told NEWSWEEK this year, after escaping 15 years of political wifedom. “I could not wait to get out of the job. The demands are significant and they are endless.”

Shriver is marching to a different tune.

But perhaps above all, a political wife is expected to trust their powerful husbands not to go astray—even if history proves they often do. For any woman, the gallery of political wives standing loyally at a podium, lips pursed, tears in check, is a dispiriting panorama.

Shriver, of course, has never been the kind of political wife to fade into her husband's shadow, even if she did defend him. The Kennedy heiress has her own money, earned during her career as a TV journalist and author. Through 25 years of marriage, she has kept her own bank account, just in case, a source recently told The Daily Beast, she needed to “walk out the door.” She’s also got her own humanitarian causes, focused on women's issues, and of course that illustrious family background.

But it’s not just Shriver. Political wives today have power—and can break a candidate faster, and with more fury, than anyone else.

Veronica Lario, Silvio Berlusconi's wife, bluntly told the press in late 2009 that she was fed up with her husband's "infatuation with young women"—and wanted a divorce. And while Huma Abedin hasn’t left her sexting husband (yet), she certainly didn't stand by him as he made his on-air confession. (When asked what his wife thought, Weiner said Abedin had “made it clear she thought what I did was very dumb.”)

Even the fictional Alicia Florrick has shown her patience to be wearing thin: In the series’ season finale last month, she finally kicks her newly elected husband to the curb.

In Shriver's case, if the rumors are true—that she tipped off the Los Angeles Times and TMZ to her husband's indiscretions—it’s just further evidence that the days of The Good Wife are over.

More power to you, Maria. You played the part longer than you should have.