Jenny Sanford Is Not a Feminist Icon

Jenny Sanford a feminist icon? Not so fast, writes Phoebe Connelly. After all, since when is it a radical act to leave one’s lying, cheating spouse?

Alice Keeney / AP Photo

Jenny Sanford’s show of strength—and her reputation as the brains behind her husband’s political career—has some commentators pushing her to run for office and hailing her as feminism’s next coming.

But let’s not get carried away. The news that Sanford is leaving her national punchline of a husband, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, is no reason to hail her as a feminist icon. Being cheated on does not grant a woman an all-access pass to the feminist club. Nor does it do feminism much credit to claim heroines based on how they handle their husband’s infidelities.

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The heart of feminism is choice—that a woman is the agent in her own decisions, political and otherwise. Being the victim of infidelity, on the other hand, is something few spouses would choose. Yes, Jenny Sanford has now chosen to leave her marriage; she filed for divorce Friday, rejecting the path of so many wronged political wives who came before her, from Hillary Clinton to Elizabeth Edwards to Silda Spitzer. Leaving a marriage, however, is not a particularly groundbreaking thing for a woman to do in 2009. The only other woman we’ve cheered this year for finally walking away from her marriage is Betty Draper. And Mad Men, let’s recall, is set in the early 1960s.

Kathleen Parker: Run, Jenny, Run! Rebecca Dana: The Year of Women Fighting Back Big Fat Story: The Messiest Political Breakups To be fair, Jenny Sanford is a woman of many accomplishments. She graduated from Georgetown with a degree in finance and was working at the “hard-driving, testosterone-soaked” investment-banking firm Lazard Frères & Co., becoming vice president of mergers and acquisitions, when she met Mark Sanford in the 1980s. The two moved to Charleston, and when Mark decided to run for Congress, Jenny ran the campaign, though she had two young children at home. By all accounts, Jenny was a star at the job, and she ran all of Mark’s subsequent campaigns, including his 2002 gubernatorial bid. Thus far, she has denied that she is interested in running for office herself.

We don’t know exactly what Jenny’s politics are, or whether she self-identifies as a feminist. (I haven’t seen her comment one way or the other.) And to be sure, feminists should take heart at her refusal to stand by her man. Renee Martin of Womanist Musings argued convincingly in July that Jenny Sanford has “introduced an image of the political wife that’s rather different from smiling doormat.” Ruth Marcus, in The Washington Post, called Sanford mature and practical, and said she offered “a new role model for all wronged spouses.”

But it is limiting to locate our feminist heroes simply by their ability to deal graciously with a horrifyingly personal situation while in the spotlight. (“Throughout the scandal that absorbed a curious state and bemused a nation, Jenny Sanford has displayed a rarely seen combination of qualities that make her well-suited for public office,” wrote Kathleen Parker at The Daily Beast. “Can’t we hire this woman?”)

The only other woman we’ve cheered this year for finally walking away from her marriage is Betty Draper. And Mad Men, let’s recall, is set in the early 1960s.

Further, it does little good to celebrate Sanford over similarly accomplished political wives who chose to stay in their marriage after the disclosure of infidelity. Their public lives offer no less inspiration for women, regardless of their private choices: Clinton was a successful two-term senator before a close race for the 2008 Democratic nomination for president, and she now serves as our third female secretary of State. Spitzer is an accomplished lawyer who worked at the high-profile New York firm Skadden Arps and served as in-house counsel for Chase Manhattan. Edwards is an attorney who practiced law under her maiden name until 1996, and who is today an outspoken advocate for universal health care.

It’s troubling to think that in a year when we have seen feminist issues like reproductive rights take center stage in Congress, had a self-identified feminist appointed secretary of State, and watched women lead the resistance movement in Iran, we’d pick a feminist icon for the simple fact that she left a bad marriage. Lots of women do that.

In a truly feminist world, more women would be governors and presidential candidates, and if they broke their vows, we’d be judging their husbands’ personal choices to stay or leave. It’s a sad commentary on gender in America that Jenny Sanford’s simple decision to divorce a man who publicly declared himself in love with another woman is held up as a feminist watershed.

Phoebe Connelly is Web editor for The American Prospect. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian America, Bookforum, and The Nation.