Can We Stop Blaming Political Wives for Their Husbands' Sex Scandals?

Clinton staffer Huma Abedin should be a force in her own right in American politics, but instead she's reduced to the pathetic spouse of a very public philanderer.
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Publish date:
May 24, 2016
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sexism, politics, Anthony Weiner, HIllary Clinton

We all remember Anthony Weiner — the former wildly popular New York Congressman who posted a dick pic on his Twitter account in 2011. Sex scandals aren't necessarily the end of a political career if you're a dude, but he got caught in another sexting incident in 2013, and that was pretty much it for him.

But what about Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin? If you believe pop culture, she's as much to blame as he is for his decision to shower the world with dick pics, and the release of a new documentary, Weiner, on the scandal is creating even more public attention — and the victims of the crossfire are surprising.

Like a lot of political wives, Abedin had to get up on stage and make a heartfelt statement about how they were working it out and things would get better while everyone looked on pityingly. The second time around, it went from pity to disgust that a woman would stay with a husband who cheated so flagrantly, putting their relationship even more tightly in the spotlight — it was The Good Wife in real time, or, to draw another comparison, a throwback to 1998 and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

In this case, it's a particularly apt comparison, because Abedin is a whole lot more than some downtrodden political wife. She's actually a Washington power player, and she's coming under the spotlight this year because she's instrumental in Secretary Hillary Clinton's race for the White House — which isn't a surprise, because Abedin has worked at Secretary Clinton's side since 1996, when she was assigned to the then-First Lady as an intern.

Though her husband's dick should have absolutely nothing to do with her, let alone the campaign, some are claiming that she's going to become a "liability" for Secretary Clinton, and that after years of being supported even after the Clintons subtly dropped her husband, she could find herself out in the cold.

Like many women in politics, Abedin has struggled for her footing. She has to work twice as hard for half the recognition of her male counterparts, and she faces the additional obstacle of being Arab-American, and Muslim. Working behind the scenes may leave her largely invisible to the general public, but she's played a key role not just in Clinton's campaign, but her time in the Senate and at State, where she was involved in activities like coordinating with the Obama White House. She shows up repeatedly in photos of Clinton throughout her career, but many people's eyes glide right over her, and few people could identify her by name, until very recently.

Her close affinity to Secretary Clinton hasn't helped, given the vicious vitriol the country has heaped upon her since her time as First Lady; in working first as an intern, then as bodywoman, then as vice chairwoman, Abedin has been inextricably linked with Secretary Clinton, and splattered with the same smears. The fact that she's been involved in a sex scandal of her own just makes her all the more salacious for people looking for ways to drag her and/or Clinton down.

There's a funny thing that happens when men cheat, including politicians: While society may frown upon them for being naughty boys, their wives somehow catch the blame. Whether people are suggesting that they weren't sufficiently pleasing to their husbands, or blaming them for choosing them to stay with cheating partners, women are subject to incredible scrutiny that their husbands don't get.

A dismissive headline or two about a cheater, sure, but there will always be an in-depth feature on The Wife of the Cheater, a Definitive Process Story. This is what Huma Abedin has come to be known for, in part because her role in Secretary Clinton's staff is a more intimate, private, secretive one, and this made her a bit of an enigma to people trying to learn more about who she is. (Thanks for calling her a "glorified lady's maid," though, Newsweek, that was really classy.)

So instead of knowing Huma Abedin, the person, we know Anthony Weiner's Wife. Last week, Weiner premiered at Sundance, further adding fuel to what would be a dead scandal if it weren't for its proximal association with Secretary Clinton. Few things are as delicious as Clintons and a sex scandal, after all, and bringing up the marital woes of her vice-chair is a fantastic way to suggest that the Clinton campaign is some sort of hotbed of sin.

People love talking about sex, and in a puritan culture, there's nothing more pleasurable than talking about the inappropriate sex other people are having. The more high profile, the better, and it doesn't get much better than politics, where people are supposed to be moral and legal compasses for the nation, so sex scandals are like catnip to critics. Weiner's career certainly ended the minute his wiener popped up on Twitter, but what's frustrating is the attempt to drag his wife down with him.

Whatever arrangement Weiner and Abedin have within the context of their marriage is their own business — perhaps they genuinely love each other and are willing to work through episodes like these, maybe their partnership is politically expedient, maybe they're nonmonogamous but can't openly express that, or maybe she just genuinely doesn't give a rat's fart about who her husband sexts because she has more important things to deal with. Culturally, we've made it our business by making sexuality so humiliating and titillating that Weiner felt compelled to lie about the situation.

None of this, though, is Abedin's fault. The timing of Weiner seems deeply suspicious, because it's trafficking on the well-established history of blaming women for their husband's philandering and taking advantage of the fact that Abedin has been thrust into the news in a very dramatic way this year. The formerly deeply private woman who has served as a key Clinton staffer working behind the scenes on the optics and management of one of America's highest profile and most hated women is suddenly being dragged into the public light with her new role in the Clinton campaign, with the Benghazi hearings, and now, with a rehash of her husband's sex scandal.

It has to be awful for Abedin, who would undoubtedly prefer not to be constantly reminded of her husband's misdeeds, but it's also manifestly sexist and unfair. People would be dogging her hard in the media no matter what, but it's being compounded by her role in the Clinton campaign, which provides numerous opportunities for people to make snarky comments about the sexuality of both women, and about their marriages.

For every speculative story about Abedin and Weiner, the trope that women should be blamed for cheating husbands endures. Rather than admitting that both people are independent agents with autonomy to do their own thing, we pretend culturally that Abedin is somehow the keeper of her husband's sexuality.

All told, sexting is a pretty tame version of a sex scandal, and it's remarkable that Weiner's escapades have managed to stay in the news this long. Abedin's associations with Secretary Clinton likely have something to do with the incredible endurance of this particular meme, and it's telling that the left is also on board with trying to find ways to shame and humiliate Abedin for something that wasn't even her fault.

The couple reportedly hasn't watched Weiner and doesn't intend to, and oddly enough, it's Anthony Weiner who managed to sum up the problems with the film and the media's treatment of his wife, noting that she didn't agree to participate in the filming and it was "a bit phony" to play up her role. Just like President Bill Clinton, he's stuck in the awkward position of watching his wife pilloried in the media for something he did, while knowing that if he steps forward to say something, his wife will just be subjected to more sexism.

I don't envy either one of them, but I burn with rage for the treatment of Huma Abedin and the pervasive sexism that leads people to conclude it's acceptable to make political hay from marital troubles.

Photo: Boss Tweed/Creative Commons