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Is Jenny Sanford a feminist hero?

Posted on Thursday, July 2nd, 2009 at 3:34 pm

Author: Renee Martin

Unlike other western politicians, American legislators are expected to lead lives of sexual purity. When they step outside of their marital vows, it triggers a feeding frenzy in which members of the press and public line up to consume their pound of flesh. Mark Sanford is the latest politician to allow his genitalia heart make his decisions for him.  He was in a prime position to be the front man to the now-rudderless Republican Party, until recent events changed everything.

There really is nothing new or shocking about Sanford’s story. Each day, countless people are unfaithful; according to The Monogamy Myth by Peggy Vaughan, statistics show that approximately 60% of husbands and 40% of wives will have an affair at some time in their marriage. Today, it is often more shocking to find that a husband is not a lecher. The only real twist to this drama is the reaction of Jenny Sanford, Mark’s wife.

When Mark Sanford made his predictable atonement plea, he was standing in front of the cameras by himself. Jenny Sanford seems to have declined to take on the role of long-suffering wife awaiting the return of her fickle lover. Dina Matos McGreevy, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards all stood by their men, allowing the public to feed off of their grief like suckling pigs. Edwards and McGreevy even went as far as to write tell-all books, just in case somehow, in all of the public commentary and accusations, you missed essential points of their rise to public martyrdom.

In Sanford, we have been introduced to a woman that not only declines to express shame for her husband’s actions, but summarily declares the importance of maintaining dignity and respect in the eyes of her children. Unlike the women that have gone before her, political ambition was not her foremost thought. There were no ambitions of running for president one day or retaining the power that comes with being the first lady of a state.

Jenny Sanford’s response to her husband’s infidelity has introduced an image of the political wife that’s rather different from smiling doormat. Jenny Sanford, instead, appears as a self-assured and dignified woman. Though she has not displayed any of the anger and betrayal that she must surely be feeling, her curt responses to the media make it clear that the shame of this incident does not belong to her and that she is unwilling to sacrifice her self-respect while enabling her enamoured husband’s midlife crisis.

Unlike other cheated-on spouses, Jenny Sanford’s response has engendered empathy as well as admiration. Political wives have been forced to perform a very specific form of womanhood, and by refusing to wear the scarlet letter of shame, Sanford is viewed as a trailblazer by many.

Feminism is about choice and even while claiming this as truth, the decisions of Edwards et al. to stand behind their men always seemed a problematic choice. A decision that reflected such complete passivity hardly seemed informed by any real agency; rather, it reflected a social demand that a woman be subordinate to her husband. By separating herself, Sanford’s decision is easier to own as feminist even though she justified her actions by claiming to desire the respect of her children rather than her own self respect.

In the end, what happens in the Sanford’s relationship is really no one’s business. Both parties have asked for privacy for the sake of their children, though Mark continues to feed the media frenzy with more revelations. Perhaps what we should all take away from the Sanford affair is that no matter how powerful the husband in question is, women have a right to respond in whatever way makes them comfortable. Even as emails from his lover continue to titilate, we can still choose to turn away from such media coverage and focus on the example of Jenny Sanford, one wife in the public eye who won’t “stand by her man” without a damn good reason.

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  1. I heard it’s all about money. If she files for divorce she has to split her millions of $$$ 50/50 with him. He did everything to humiliate his wife in public hoping she would dump him, but it didn’t work.

  2. “Jenny Sanford seems to have declined to take on the role of long-suffering wife awaiting the return of her fickle lover.”

    This may be a sign of Jenny’s history with Mark. Regardless of her choice to not feed the media’s frenzy, she does appear to be a feminist hero because it says that she found Mark’s behavior unacceptable. His power and position doesn’t affect where she stands in this situation.

    Jenny’s recent statement about forgiveness shows that she has not forgotten about what Mark has done, and that time, purpose and action will determine the future.

  3. Wow. Such vitriol and sexist hate towards men here.

    I love how you perpetuate the stereotype of the ‘unfaithful cheating dog of a husband’, and refuse to offer any negative comments towards women that do the same thing.

    I wonder if you’d call a cheating woman someone that lets her genitalia make decisions for her. Somehow I doubt it.

    This post manages to be offensive to just about everyone that could read it.

    Today, it is often more shocking to find that a husband is not a lecher.

    Why not call wives out here?

    Much like most trash feminists, you advocate the BS attitude that cheating by men is always wrong, and cheating by women is always justified.

  4. @Offended

    Renee is writing about a specific situation in which a man cheated on his wife. That’s not a stereotype. That’s what happened. It has happened before, and she commented on the actions that people took.

    The attitude that cheating is wrong is not BS. IT IS WRONG, no matter what you may have in your pants. I don’t see why Renee should have to address women who cheat in an article about a woman’s reaction to a *man* who cheated, just so you can feel like the world is “fair.”

  5. Great work. A major caveat, however:

    “There were no ambitions of running for president one day”

    None of us can know why Hillary Clinton stayed with her husband. And even if she did make choices based on career ambition, men do that every day of the week. Our current president’s books were cleverly timed to achieve maximum velocity, for example. Hillary’s choice, even if it was to maximize personal prospects, hurt nobody — we cannot assume that we know she was simply harboring ambition, whereas somehow Bill or Chelsea had no idea. Punishing women for ambition, when even before Bill’s term Hillary had been voted a top-100 attorney nationally and had numerous achievements for women and children (more quantifiable achievements than many presidents), as a contrast to what is meant to be a “feminist hero,” weakens the arguments.

  6. @Maddox

    Renee is writing about a specific situation in which a man cheated on his wife. That’s not a stereotype.

    She propagates the stereotype via her language, however.

    The attitude that cheating is wrong is not BS. IT IS WRONG, no matter what you may have in your pants. I don’t see why Renee should have to address women who cheat in an article about a woman’s reaction to a *man* who cheated, just so you can feel like the world is “fair.”

    Because she’s using selective language to demonize men who do it, despite the fact that women do it just as much.

    Such as the “letting genitalia think for him”, and “discover your husband is NOT a lech”, without using such demonizing language against women.

    It’s a common feminist tactic.

  7. I should add to Maddox:

    The attitude that cheating is wrong is not BS. IT IS WRONG, no matter what you may have in your pants.

    Problem is, feminists by and large ONLY advocate it being wrong when MEN do it, and they find endless ways to justify it when women do it, and any attempt to say it’s wrong when women do it is dismissed as “slut shaming”.

  8. Why is she potentially considered a feminist hero? Has Mrs. Sanford ever publicly identified with the feminist movement? Couldn’t her actions be attributed to a half a dozen other reasons. I find this writer foolish to voluntarily associate Mrs. Sanford’s actions with feminism.

  9. Because of double-standards about the expectations for women’s and men’s sexuality, women who cheat are often given worse treatment by the culture at large. This is why feminists speak against “slut shaming.”

    I think it’s best not to judge anyone– male or female– too harshly, whether or not we see their actions as wrong. People are human, and that fact will continue to surface, regardless of what institutions and attitudes we impose on human nature.

    My biggest issue with Sanford isn’t the fact that he cheated; it’s the fact that, in addition to abandoning his job, he’s not using wisdom to decide when to stop talking.

  10. It was refreshing to see Jenny Sullivan Sanford refuse to play the “stand by your man” type of wife.

    However, if feminists hadn’t spent years criticizing subservience, I doubt that Jenny would have taken a stand.

    Jenny Sanford has benefitted tremendously from feminism, but she hasn’t really given anything back to the movement. Her politics are ultra-conservative and she told Vogue magazine that she’s an old-fashioned women. Jenny is a feminist beneficiary, not a feminist icon.

    The feminist movement deserves the credit for paving the way for Jenny Sanford to tell her husband to shove it.

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