Guest essay: GOP Politics and the “Little Woman” in 2012

The Political Denizens are pleased to present our first guest essay! In the wake of the 2012 party conventions, public discussions of the potential “candidates” for First Lady — Ann Romney and Michelle Obama — has featured their functions as a humanizing element for their husbands and their rhetorical emphasis on “family” as a warrant for their husbands’ values. But there is a strong and emerging scholarly literature on the political and rhetorical importance of first ladies that reveals additional insights on the potential importance of these women for presdients and the presidency.

Dr. Janis Edwards is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama. Her research interests include visual displays and gender in political candidates and campaigns. Along with graduate students Brittany Finley, Kyle Fox, Megan Herboth, and Andrew Stone, Janis comments on the rhetorical presentation of Republican presidential candidate spouses and their potential political impact. These insights should come in handy as we observe, compare and contrast the performances of Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Obama in the weeks to come.

Dr. Janis Edwards, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, University of Alabama




When Anne Romney took the stage at the RNC on her husband’s behalf, she was appealing to women voters who might have been alienated by recent Republican rhetoric on issues of birth control, rape, and women’s health. Party conventions in the past four election cycles have targeted women as an important community of swing voters.

If that strategic move signaled current campaign practices, Mrs. Romney’s presence also tapped into an historic tendency to view the presidential office in terms of a “two-person career.” Some said of Hillary Clinton, who actively engaged in policy work during the first Clinton term, “We didn’t elect her,” but there is much evidence that we Americans think of the spouse as part of a political team. For example, campaign buttons from the past century are replete with images of the candidate spouses. Prospective first ladies are assessed for their cooking-baking skills as well as their position in the context of the changing roles of women today. A debate between first lady candidates was once proposed, but subsequently discarded. If the wife of a presidential candidate has no official job position, her symbolic presence looms large in the campaign.

The candidate’s spouse is noticed and expected to make herself noticeable. Public personas can generate controversy, however. During the 2012 GOP primary, one member of the media came under fire for differentiating Mrs. Romney, a homemaker, from “working” women.

The media’s interest in candidate wives is unlikely to fade. At the very least, the candidate’s spouse is another story that can feed an insatiable news beast, but spouses are also of interest as a source of insight into the candidate’s character and motivations. Attention to their roles in contemporary society may also foster interest in the prospects for a woman president. Hillary Clinton blazed the trail from the role of wife to the role of politician. It’s possible this transition could happen again.

Although a similar transition seems unlikely for Mrs. Romney (should her husband win) the 2012 GOP Presidential race has had its share of stories about the candidate spouses. Callista Gingrich initially garnered attention for her rock-solid blonde hairdo and for her place in the story of Newt’s evolving marital status. Mrs. Gingrich was a highly visible spouse on the campaign trail, but her place was not so much the adoring onlooker to her husband as a partner at tandem book-signing events.

Rick Santorum’s wife was somewhat less visible than some other GOP spouses at campaign events, but also displayed some of the expected roles of the female spouse/prospective first lady to the man we do elect. In an essay on first ladies, academics Anthony Eksterowicz and Kristen Paynter identified three classifications for prospective first ladies. In the satellite status, women are only appendages of their spouse and have no independent ideas. In the sponsored status, women achieve recognition by their relationship with their prominent husbands, but they use the relationship to find their own way. In the autonomous status, women have their own ideas and act independently from their spouse. Karen Santorum’s status as political spouse might be described as encompassing both the satellite status and autonomous status. As her husband’s campaign grew and he became one of the front-runners, she was moved into the traditionally supportive satellite status, but we contend Mrs. Santorum initially illustrated the autonomous status. While the Santorums have presented themselves as a supporting wife and husband duo, Karen Santorum’s earlier background has revealed contrasting aspects of a typical spouse persona.

The Santorums have been married for 21 years and have 7 children together after the loss of their child Gabriel in 1996. In a time when wives present themselves as the loving and supportive wife as they travel on the campaign trail, Mrs. Santorum shied away from the limelight. As her husband surged in the primaries, her absence left many scratching their heads while wondering “where is Rick Santorum’s wife?”  Why was Karen Santorum such an absent figure in her husband’s campaign? Her silence might be attributed to the fact that her past differs from the principles of her present. Karen (Garver) Santorum’s life in the 1980’s exemplifies her autonomous status. During this time, Karen lived with her then boyfriend Dr. Thomas E. Allen, who was forty years her senior and one of the co-founders of Pittsburgh’s first abortion clinic. This is quite an interesting contrast to the view of her persona that was subsequently portrayed in the media as a devoted Christian wife and mother. We might see this as a transition from youthful indiscretion to an assumption of a reformed role as the dutiful wife, recreating Mrs. Santorum as the traditional “satellite” spouse. In order to solidify our perception of this narrative we look to Karen Santorum’s interview with Piers Morgan as the epitome of supportive spouse discourse.

Karen Santorum’s interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan confirmed that she fit primarily into the two categories of satellite and autonomous. In the interview she confirms her satellite status by espousing her husband’s ideals rather than putting forward or explaining any of her own. She says at one point, “Because he’s — you know, he did hundreds of town hall meetings. And when no one believed in him, he kept at it. He kept at the message and he loves grassroots. He loves going and meeting with people and talking to them about the issues and hearing about what’s on their minds and sharing his ideas.” In this segment she speaks as a mere extension of her husband, extolling his policies and plans. In fact, the entire interview is designed to allow her to speak up for her husband on issues of policy, particularly women’s issues, and confirm her role as a caring mother. In order to reach out to women, the candidate is also described as a caring father and supportive husband. “When I was doing my book tours, Piers, Rick was the one who was home changing diapers and making meals and cleaning the kitchen. He’s been 100 percent supportive of me and my dreams and my career.” She uses her own experience with him to try to portray his support of women in general.

A closer examination of Karen Santorum’s past revealed inconsistencies between her apparent personal beliefs and her reinvention as supportive wife. Her past relationship with a physician who was also an abortion provider may explain Karen’s initial autonomous status and lack of presence on the campaign trail. Her transition to dutiful Catholic and conservative wife may well have been genuine, but as a candidate spouse she was required to assume the stance of a supportive “satellite” wife who does not speak out on her own opinions unless they mirror those of the candidate. A united front is expected.

Influence works both ways, as we have seen when a prospective first lady’s public persona is under fire, as was Michelle Obama’s during the 2008 campaign. While Karen Santorum’s past probably did not affect her husband’s political demise—he was, after, trailing Romney by a considerable distance—the media and the public can’t help but think about potential first ladies and their candidate husbands in tandem. A first lady might be able to use the “white glove pulpit” to speak out effectively on some issues, but the candidate spouse who strays from the value messages of her husband will almost certainly stir up trouble. Conversely, a wife who speaks up for her husband, as did Mrs. Romney in her convention address, among other venues, will almost always create approval.

The candidate spouse is an important figure on the campaign trail, and generates existing tensions between traditional and transformed ideas about American women. The role of a presidential spouse involves great expectations as well as great constraints. And we know it will take some effort to think creatively about future candidates and their male spouses as “first husbands.”


Note from the Denizens: If you would like to contribute to our blog as an “Honorary Denizen,” please contact Steve Klien or Chris Whitt with your idea for a brief analytical essay or commentary piece. We’d love to hear what you have to contribute to the publc discussion!


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