Marrying Into Office by Lois Duke Whitaker

Voting in free and fair elections is an important part of maintaining our democracy.  Voters will make a choice in November 2008 to determine our next president.  The current presidential race in this country is providing an example of how voting turn-out can be influenced during competitive races for a so-called “open seat.”  The current president is limited by the U.S. Constitution to two terms.  The current presidential race is also proving to be an interesting one in that the two potential Democratic candidates are still competing in primaries while the Republican presidential candidate seems to have already been decided.   One other interesting question also seems to continue to surface in this race: is Bill Clinton helping or hurting his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.  As Maureen Dowd noted in an op-ed piece for The New York Times on Feb. 13, 2008, “As a possible first Madame President, Hillary is a flawed science experiment because you can’t take Bill out of the equation.  Her story is wrapped up in her marriage, and her marriage is wrapped up in a series of unappetizing compromises, arrangements, and dependencies.”

However, when one reflects on how we first knew about Hillary Rodham Clinton as a national political figure, we have to remember that we first heard her name in her role as First Lady.  That is, she really gained name recognition in a surrogate role.  What and how much would we know today about Hillary Rodham Clinton had she not married Bill Clinton, our 42nd president.

When one examines the role of American women and how many achieved political office,  history shows that many gained political status beginning at the alter.  One finds many examples of women who made a political transition in a surrogate role.  For example, one means by which women entered legislatures was what has been termed “the widow’s route,” a manner in which a wife succeeded to a seat formerly held by her deceased husband or father.  For example, some years ago, a colleague at the University of Arkansas wrote a piece for a scholarly journal entitled, “Over His Dead Body.”  In the article, she described how party leaders selected widows/daughters to honor the deceased member, all the time capitalizing on voters’ sympathy and using name recognition to hold onto a seat while someone else (typically a male) was being groomed as the conventional candidate for the real campaign.  Many of these appointments were extended to the women as a courtesy; the women were expected to finish out the unexpired term of the deceased incumbent and then quietly return to their former role of housewife and mother.  Some did outlast this courtesy appointment and forge their own political careers. 

History also reveals that the first three female governors achieved their positions through their connections with their husbands who had served previously as governors.  The first woman to hold this position was Nellie Tayloe Ross, a Democrat from Wyoming.  When her husband fell ill and passed away during his tenure as governor, the Democratic Party in Wyoming approached Ross and asked her to seek the office in lieu of her husband.  She was the unanimous choice and agreed to run to continue the policies her husband had started.

In the very same electoral cycle, Texans elected Miriam “Ma” Ferguson as its first female governor.  Ferguson succeeded her husband, Gov. Jim Ferguson, who could not run for his old seat because he had been impeached, convicted, and removed from office because of corruption.  It was known at the time that she would merely be a stand-in while her husband really was governor behind the scenes.  And, of course, a similar situation developed for Lurleen Burns Wallace who ran to take George Wallace’s place since Alabama state law prohibited him from serving two consecutive terms as governor.

Hopefully, the day will come when there will no gender barriers and women will feel free to run for public office on their own qualifications rather than having to gain name recognition because of their husband or father.  Hillary, a very qualified and competent woman, is proving she is a hard worker, can withstand the many physical rigors of a tough and long campaign trail, can handle the scrutiny that politicians must endure, has proven she can deal with the decision-making required of a commander in chief, and will be a real asset in representing us diplomatically around the globe.  One can conclude she is not only paving the political way to the highest office in the land, she is also a role model for future generations of young girls who might aspire to being “Madam President.”

The bottom line here: When the American voter continues to exclude women from the highest office in our country (and in many lesser public offices) based on gender and gender related biases, the United States suffers.  We are missing great talent, experience, and a special agenda that women bring to the political table.


Lois Duke Whitaker is a professor of political science at Georgia Southern University and editor of the new book Voting the Gender Gap.

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