Last night, the dream seemed close to reality: A woman could be president. Hillary Clinton’s glorious blazing white pantsuit. Her strong words. Her triumphant acceptance of the Democratic nomination. All of it gave us an idea of what the future would look like with a woman in the Oval Office.
Less clear is what path Bill Clinton will forge. What will it be like to be the first male “first spouse”? Will he be able to finally cut loose from the gendered expectations we hold for that role?
Of course he will. If Hillary Clinton is breaking the glass ceiling, her husband is breaking the glass cage ― or whatever metaphor you want to use to describe the heavy weight of expectations that hold both women and men back in life. In his new role, Bill Clinton can redefine what it means to be a political spouse and bring us closer to gender equality.
Is it a spouse’s job to stay home, bake cookies and host teas (the famous tasks Hillary Clinton seemed to disparage nearly a quarter-century ago)? Not if the spouse is Bill Clinton. There’s hardly anyone who expects him to do things like select tableware, craft menus or host social events. In December, Hillary said he wouldn’t do those things. She might.
“Bill Clinton does not know his way around a china pattern,” The New York Times recently declared.
OK, but how many Americans do know anything about china patterns in 2016? Bill Clinton is by all accounts a brilliant man. Did Michelle Obama, Harvard Law school graduate and longtime corporate lawyer, have an expertise in these matters? C’mon. No. Stop.
Here’s what’s really going on. Men aren’t expected to do this stuff, but women are. It doesn’t matter if the man is a former president or a former corporate lawyer or a bricklayer or whatever. It doesn’t matter if the woman is an Ivy League graduate with decades of professional experience.
While Bill isn’t expected to take on these duties, some are suggesting his daughter should. “An insult,” one DNC attendee told the Times in response to the idea.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being a gracious host who sets a perfect table, arranges elegant events and keeps a home humming. The problem is if we want gender equality, if a woman can be president, we have to let go of the assumption that girls do girl stuff and boys do boy stuff. That’s over.
Free from the gendered expectations we have for the presidential spouse, Bill can go another way. As “first gentleman,” or whatever you want to call him, Bill will finally achieve what Hillary was seeking as a political spouse decades ago: the choice to shape the job and the freedom from domestic duties that perhaps don’t seem all that fulfilling.
And by showing himself to be a passionate and supportive spouse ― which he already did in his loving speech earlier this week in Philadelphia ― Bill is also already redefining what it means to be a man and a husband.
The dated notion that women are homemakers but men don’t have to do that stuff is part of the reason that even in dual-earner couples, women still take on more of the child-rearing and homemaking tasks. It’s why so many of us are freaking exhausted.
The idea that men don’t need to be supportive or care for a home or shouldn’t have to take a back seat to their wives also constrains men’s ability to develop as full, emotionally whole human beings.
These unspoken gender expectations hold us back just as much as the ones that define who gets to be president or CEO.
The reality is there aren’t many women or men these days who devote their lives to homemaking. In nearly half of two-parent households, both mother and father work outside the home.
Forty-percent of American households are headed up by a female breadwinner. Most married couples look like Barack and Michelle did back in 2007 ― two careers, super busy. No time for picking out china.
They look, of course, like Bill and Hillary Clinton. Two professionals who made choices about what they want to do with their adult lives.
When Hillary Clinton defended that choice in 1992, she was crucified. In response to a question about conflicts of interest between her work at an Arkansas law firm and her husband’s job as governor, she made an admittedly inelegant comment that would haunt her for years.
“I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life,” she said.
It was before the social media age, but that quote essentially went bonkers viral. Some homemakers thought it was insulting. It certainly wasn’t the best way to put it, but what Hillary was doing was simply defending her choice to work.
Would a man be criticized for saying something like that? Imagine if Bill Clinton said that today? What if he said: “I suppose I could stay in the White House and host teas, but what I’d like to do is continue my work for my foundation.”
Would anyone take offense?