Analysis Politics

The changing role of spouses in the world of politics

Arun Kohli examines the power, or lack of that political spouses hold

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Image Credit: Simon Dawson

The days of political spouses being looked at as a public display with no real substance are seemingly over. In modern times, husbands and wives of world leaders wield a greater degree of influence. Back in the 20th century, famous spouses such as Jackie Kennedy were presented as someone to be in the spotlight without holding much power at all. Denis Thatcher, the husband of the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, famously refused to talk to the press at all and stood by his wife whilst never claiming the spotlight or any power for himself whatsoever.

But times have changed. More recently the spouses of our world leaders are becoming more vocal and holding more power to both influence policy and create what they view as consequential change. Hillary Clinton, who served as the First Lady of the United States or FLOTUS, between 1993 and 2001, was seen to be one of the most engaged and proactive First Lady’s in United States’ history, something she was both criticised and hated for.

It could be argued that we are still in a period where we do not want the spouses of our world leaders to get involved in politics. Carrie Johnson, the wife of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has constantly been lamented in the press for the power and influence she supposedly holds over her husband. Allegedly, Mrs Johnson has been behind some of the entrances and exits of ministers in the Johnson government, the most famous one being the exit of Lee Cain, who was seen as a potential candidate for Chief of Staff in Downing Street. She also played a part in the exit and reintroduction of Sajid Javid into cabinet when she famously fell out with Dominic Cummings, the then Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister.

Yet despite the way Carrie Johnson has been portrayed as a Machiavellian character in British media, spouses across the world have the power to influence key issues and debates in the public sphere by using their influential positions. Since Tony Blair took office, all Prime Ministers since have admitted to relying on their spouses to give them advice and have all been able to use their other halves to bounce ideas off.

Similarly, in France, Brigitte Macron is said to be a key influential force within the Elysée Palace and regularly provides her husband with advice before he makes major decisions. The French First Lady is said to be a significant voice in cabinet reshuffles as well as domestic policy making and is also known to get into disagreements with her husband’s staff, which seems to echo what reportedly happens in the UK.

And yet whilst First Ladies in America, for example, are known to setup initiatives such as Melania Trump’s anti-bullying campaign, Be Best, or Michelle Obama’s fight against obesity and campaign for healthy eating. On the global stage, spouses of our world leaders look like nothing more than objects for a photo opportunity. This June, during the meeting of the G7, spouses of world leaders were led around Cornwall for walks along the beach, attending barbecues and meeting children for photo opportunities, without publicly discussing the major issues the world faces.

Likewise, at the COP26 in Glasgow world leaders took to the stage to talk about what, as a human race, we can do to try and minimise the impact climate change is having on our planet as well as how we can work to preserve the environment. Despite being an ardent advocate for the environment, Carrie Johnson and other spouses of world leaders had no real impact at the COP26 conference with the first few days generally being described as lacklustre. The Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel’s husband, Joachim Sauer, didn’t even attend the conference with her, he is another spouse who prefers to stay behind the scenes.

Whilst global leaders constantly take to the stage at numerous events across the year, their spouses, apart from several photo opportunities, tend not to get involved in politics publicly and stay behind the scenes, supporting their husband or wife privately.

Whilst it is for every spouse to go on and define their role in their new position, with Michelle Obama presenting herself as the mom-in-chief and taking on the role to both use her position as a way of exerting influence in crucial areas such as obesity and children’s health, as well as presenting herself as a normal mother of two who owed her new life to the everyday American. However, even Michelle Obama fell victim to the press that seemingly has more to criticise about the wives of our world leaders than their male equivalents.

The distinction between how male and female spouses are treated by the media is quite stark. When female spouses get involved in the political sphere more avidly, they are also being hounded by the press for being too influential, too nosy and too powerful, words which rarely provoke negative connotations when used to describe men.

Yet men such as Joachim Sauer and Denis Thatcher were able to live through their wives’ tenures relatively unscathed from media attacks when it came to their public position. The distinction between the treatment of male and female politicians is one that has been discussed for decades, and it seems this is carried over to the spouses of our elected individuals.

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