At first, the news that Anne Sinclair was named France’s Woman of the Year elicited groans from many Americans—along with sardonic jokes suggesting that a better title might have been “Doormat of the Year.”
It was depressing enough that a poll of French women designated the long-suffering wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn as the most admired woman in the country, presumably for standing by her man during the sex scandal that deposed him as head of the International Monetary Fund and destroyed his chance of becoming the next French president.
Even more dismaying was the fact that Sinclair beat out Christine Lagarde, the former French finance minister who succeeded Strauss-Kahn as the IMF chief, by a single point in the poll, which was conducted for the online magazine Terrafemina.
Anne Sinclair is a humiliated spouse who achieved notoriety for putting up with her husband’s chronic philandering and supporting him despite charges of sexual assault in France as well as the United States. Christine Lagarde, who runs a global monetary institution, was ranked the ninth most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine this year.
How could a majority of voters have preferred a woman who won fame by tolerating a cheating husband over an international leader of worldwide renown? Is French culture so sexist, so hopelessly mired in retrograde gender stereotypes that a victimized wife who pretended not to mind her husband’s reputation as a sexual predator is seen as more admirable than a high-achieving powerhouse?
There may be considerable truth to that interpretation, but it’s only part of the story. Long considered “the Barbara Walters of France,” Sinclair was one of the country’s best-known journalists, the longtime host of a popular political show on the largest European private television channel, and a best-selling author as well as the writer of a top political blog. Considerably more famous, not to mention far richer, than her husband when they married in 1991, Sinclair was Strauss-Kahn’s third wife—and yet he was the one who had to accept being called Mr. Sinclair during the early years of their marriage.
Is it any surprise that a beloved television host—one possessed of that magic quality that leads pundits and pollsters to call someone “relatable”—won what amounted to a popularity contest in this year’s poll?
And yet even that explanation is too simplistic. For many American women, Sinclair’s ordeal—and the public approval she earned by enduring it without smashing her husband over the head with a frying pan—evoked memories of Hillary Clinton’s humiliation during the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.
When Bill Clinton first ran for president, the Clintons advertised their partnership as a “two-for-the-price-of-one” deal that promised a high-achieving first lady who would play a prominent role in the White House. Although some voters were unnerved at the prospect, others were thrilled by the idea of having a first lady who would be something more than a middle-aged Barbie doll with a frozen smile.
Reactions were equally divided on Hillary’s reaction to reports that her husband had an extramarital affair with lounge singer Gennifer Flowers. When Hillary disparaged the “Stand By Your Man” philosophy of country singer Tammy Wynette, she left most voters with the clear impression that she was far too feisty and independent to put up with a husband’s betrayal that way.
The first installment of Hillary’s comeuppance arrived when President Clinton chose his wife to head a national task force on health care reform and the resulting proposal was a political debacle; her approval rating plummeted to a dismal 35 percent, and her attempt to become the most empowered first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt was widely judged a failure.
Then came the horrifying furor that attended the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton. To the surprise of many, Hillary stood by her man, and lo and behold—her approval ratings soared to 70 percent. America may have rejected her as a co-president, but it loved her as a humiliated wife.
Since then, of course, she has completely rewritten her history as a major player in her own right, rather than as an extension of someone else. As a presidential candidate in 2008, she earned 18 million votes, and as secretary of state in the Obama administration, she became the most admired woman in America and the most popular living politician. Her approval ratings have been hovering in the upper 60s—far higher than those of President Obama. And this time around, Hillary has earned that admiration with her own stellar performance, instead of as some archetypal victim of male malfeasance.
During the 1990s, back when Hillary was first lady, the feminist leader Betty Friedan said, “Coverage of Hillary Clinton is a massive Rorschach test of the evolution of women in our society.”
The Sinclair-Lagarde divide can also be seen as a progress report on where we stand—another Rorschach test that reveals how far Western society has evolved in its attitudes toward women, and how much further it still has to go.
By any measure, both Sinclair and Lagarde are accomplished women who have achieved extraordinary success as individuals. It’s true that in recent months, Sinclair became most famous for the way she handled the trials of being the wife of a sexual predator who was accused by one alleged victim of attacking her like a “rutting chimpanzee.” All too many wives identified with her suffering; for women, putting up with the indignity of a cheating husband is an experience that transcends every cultural, socio-economic, religious and national border.
But in the French contest between the wronged wife and the august IMF chief, they were neck-and-neck in the polling, and the victim won by only one point. While Sinclair may have benefited from a sympathy vote, it’s hardly her only claim to fame. And like Hillary Clinton, she too may go on to new challenges. Who knows what chapters Sinclair still has left to write?
Progress always seems to lurch ahead in uneven spurts, with two steps forward followed by one step backward— and with women’s rights, any advances can seem agonizingly slow.
But until very recently, even Western societies often recoiled when confronted with a powerful woman in a position of authority. This time around, however, the French simply reacted with a collective Gallic shrug and a verdict that acknowledged both the old-fashioned wronged wife and the formidable new leader whose authority no one seems to question: “We like them both.”
If Betty Friedan were still around, she might well have permitted herself a knowing smile.