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.