Last week the leaders of the world’s biggest economies met in London for the G-20 Leaders’ Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy. While the men were talking about facts, figures and policy their wives were off doing their own thing.
Stories about global recession ran alongside vignettes about what the ladies were wearing, their posture and how Michelle Obama compares to Jackie Kennedy.
I fail to understand how it is newsworthy or relevant to report on the happenings of women who are married to male politicians. I believe it is profoundly sexist and demonstrates the need for gender equity in politics.
Of the 20 plus world leaders at the summit only two were women: President Cristina Kirchner of Argentina and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. Both women are married but neither of their husbands participated in the “first lady” events. Where the female leaders were visible in the group photos with their male cohorts, their male spouses were conspicuously absent from the colourful swaths of cloth in “first lady” group photos.
The absence of “first gentlemen” (one a former president of Argentina and the other a professor) was not a case of an overbooked schedule according to Guardian Columnist Zoe Williams:
“The truth is, they couldn’t have come – it would have unmasked the whole thing for the absurdity it is; whether or not they arrived at this conclusion themselves, or were just casually not invited, history doesn’t relate.”
I do not think someone should have a public role simply because they are married to a politician.
Here in Canada the prime minister’s spouse may occasionally accompany them on an official function but do not have any stated public role. In fact, that’s one thing I quite like about Canada. The wives of the last three prime ministers have maintained a very low public profile and the prime minister before that, Kim Campbell, had no husband.
I believe a public role for the spouse of a politician (who is usually male) invariably promotes negative stereotypes about the role of women in politics. In the United States it is common to see male politicians at official events with a well-manicured wife in tow.
In 2008 there was a very real possibility that the next American President would be female. The media and society were forced, for just a moment, to look past what she was wearing and seriously evaluate her vision for America.
Hillary Rodham-Clinton was a contender for the most important elected position in the United States – not just Bill’s arm candy.
A big part of achieving gender equity lies in our ability to promote positive, powerful role models rather than pandering to bullshit stereotypes about the place of women in society.