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Today in Slate, Melinda Henneberger introduces “First Mates,” a new series which will profile the “marriages of the presidential candidates.” The use of the terms “Mates” and “marriages” suggest a gender-neutral examination of candidates’ spouses. But throughout the piece, references to male “First Mates” are conspicuously absent. Check out the lede:
As high-stress, no-win jobs go, it’s hard to think of a more humbling one than political helpmate. On the way up, the candidate’s spouse is invisible unless she makes a mistake—or is obliged to stand by, smiling, as her husband announces that he’s coming out or going away. Even at the presidential level, it is far easier for an aspiring first lady to hurt than help. (See: Hillary Clinton’s crack about baking cookies, Kitty Dukakis’ announcement about the decades she spent addicted to diet pills before her husband noticed, and—a couple of lifetimes ago—the not-at-all-jammin’ effect that Tipper Gore’s campaign against raunchy rock lyrics had on her husband’s 1988 presidential run.)
Here, in Henneberger’s introductory discussion of candidates’ marriages, she refers to the candidate’s spouse solely as “she,” ties the spouse to a “husband,” and calls the spouse an “aspiring first lady.” While it’s true that all the major players in the 2008 presidential race are married, not all of them are married to men.
Henneberger’s choice to feminize these First Mates would be conspicuous in any election (what of the spouses of our 13 female Senators and 61 female Representatives currently serving in Congress?). But Henneberger’s is particularly glaring when applied to the 2008 presidential race, where preliminary polls show Hillary Clinton holds a sizeable lead in the Democratic race, and where the smart money is on Clinton to snag the presidency in ’08. In an election where a man (Bill Clinton–—maybe you’ve heard of him?) is very likely to be America’s next First Mate, it’s remiss of Henneberger to refer to candidates’ spouses purely in female terms.
Henneber’s Henneberger’s lede does mention aspiring president Hillary Clinton—-but only in her past role as “aspiring first lady”—-and refers obliquely to the Clintons’ marriage. I’m betting Slate will go on to highlight Bill & Hill’s marriage later on in the series, but why generalize the spouses as female in the opener? For someone who literally wrote the book on women voters, you’d think Henneberger would at least mention the idea that a First Mate isn’t always a Missus.