Sarah Waights, author of Never Marry a Politician, talks about the inspiration for her novel, and about the plight of the strong, capable women who are often behind the rise of the world’s most powerful men …
Long before Hillary Clinton decided to stand for the presidency herself there was a joke doing the rounds and it went like this:
Hillary and Bill drive into a gas station. As the attendant is filling their car, Bill says, “Look Hillary, isn’t that the guy you used to date at college? Just imagine, if you’d married him not me you’d be the wife of a gas station attendant.”
“Nonsense, Bill,” said Hillary, “If I’d married him instead of you, he would be the President of the United States.”
And therein lies the truth that inspired my novel Never Marry a Politician. Behind every successful man is a very clever woman and the cleverest women of all may well be the ones who wield their power covertly, using their man as a puppet to achieve their own ambitions. Shakespeare was fascinated with the concept; What was Lady Macbeth if not quite literally the power behind the throne? Poor old Macbeth didn’t have an idea in his head other than the ones she put there and – boy – did she have some big ideas. Incidentally, Shakespeare also portrayed her as a raving, hormonal lunatic and ensured she came to a sticky end but – hey ho – feminism had a long way to go back then.
Not that we have come as far as we would like to think, as I peek between my fingers at Hillary Clinton’s current presidential campaign. Despite the social progress that allowed Obama to get into power, there has still never been a female president. In the UK’s political system I watch with horrified fascination as those handpicked female members of our elected parliament – the brightest of the bright – have to run the gauntlet of press and parliamentary preoccupation with their legs, cleavage, shoes and marital status before they are allowed to express a view or table a policy. Even then, the apparatchiks are far more likely to hand them a brief concerning childcare provision than, say, defence policy. I feel even more sorry for the women who – quite by chance – happen to be married to a man who is ambitious for a career in politics. That is what happened to my poor heroine, Emily, who quickly learns that – despite it being the 21st century – her role is to stand meekly in the background gazing at her husband admiringly.
“I do have an opinion of my own,” she protests to her lover, Matt.
“Sure you do,” he replies, “but only when your husband’s advisors have told you what it is.”
The ‘gazing admiringly’ thing, by the way, is one I felt Nancy Reagan did awfully well and that made her an excellent President’s wife. The UK equivalent would probably be the ‘wife’ of our one and only female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher; her spouse, Dennis, was stalwart, supportive and above criticism. Always. When he died all anyone could remember him doing was chatting amiably about golf and mixing a killer gin and tonic. Could she have done it without him? Personally, I doubt it.
One would like to think that women signing up to the husband’s job to the detriment of her own autonomy was an outdated idea. When I was a child, my father was in the diplomatic corps which involved lots of making polite conversation with his opposite numbers from other countries. My mother’s role – it was made quite clear – was to play the Nancy Reagan to his Ronald, taking the wives out shopping and giving them tea and cake while the men got down to the real business of – well – being diplomatic. But that can’t be how things work now, can it?
I actually think it isn’t. I think it’s worse. I have built a career and raised a family in an era where women were not just supposed to ‘have it all’, they had to somehow ‘do it all’ too. Achieving the role of the perfect wife and mother at the same time as having a ball-breakingly successful career is now less of a freedom and more of a moral obligation. We owe it to our mothers and grandmothers who were left entirely without bust support after all that bra-burning so that we – the newly empowered (and exhausted) generation – could rule the world. In the general election in the UK last year, the media was fascinated by the wives of the political leaders. It was clear that, the female vote was being courted. In order to have any respect for the husband, we had to admire the wife. Here, wearing a pinny and churning out perfect cupcakes was key but not, in itself, enough. Instead, the politician’s wives, with their perfect, smiley children in tow, had to bake, smile, be immaculately dressed AND have impressive careers (but no opinions, mind). Two are high-flying lawyers and another is ‘something very clever’ in product development for a really classy stationery design company – phew, nothing controversial about notepads, thank heaven. The high (or low) point of the entire campaign was the week when all the leaders were photographed in their own kitchens, drinking coffee with their wives – cue pages and pages of coverage analysing the political significance of everything from the mugs they were drinking out of to the brand of olive oil sitting next to the stove. Honestly! I know… madness.
Actually, the scariest thing I ever did was to marry. Although I knew almost as soon as I met him that I loved my husband-to-be – and that I trusted him – my mind whirled with terror at the thought of how being a wife and having children, would make me vulnerable, financially dependent, that I would somehow lose myself, that I would feel compelled to become a mirror of my husband to justify his protection of me … I needn’t have fretted. My husband has never wanted me to become anything other than a more developed, fulfilled, version of myself. We have taken turns, over the years, to be the breadwinner, raise the children, take time out to follow our dreams (get me! A published novelist no less …) and just be whoever we felt we needed to be. Of course that has meant being supportive to each other, being loyal, being the person who is always on side – even when you’ve made a right royal tit of yourself – but it has never had to mean turning into a person who exists purely to show our partner in a better light.
And so – just like my poor character Emily, we all struggle on – walking the tightrope of career versus family, spin versus substance, truth versus diplomacy and wine versus waistline. Thank God for the escapism of other people’s stories.
Never Marry a Politician is now available in paperback. Click on one of the links below to purchase.
For more on Sarah, follow her on Twitter @SarahWaights