It’s felt like an awfully retro week in American politics. In Texas, gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis hashed out 20-year-old details of her former marriage in a lengthy New York Times Magazine profile, while in Washington, wannabe presidential candidate Rand Paul diligently stirred a pot of about the same vintage, with comments about the 1990s marital troubles of his imagined future rival, Hillary Clinton.
Though it’s tempting to crack jokes about grunge and .com bubbles, the grim truth is that neither of these silly mini-stories is actually that dated. Their resurgence speaks not to some weird nostalgia for the '90s, but rather to a story without beginning or end: the way that women’s lives are always—have always been—measured, weighed and judged via metrics of personal-public trade-off.
Yet somehow, the male politicians in these conversations seem sure that America is going to be shocked by the notion that women make complicated choices in their pursuit of both professional and personal goals.
In Davis’s case, the issue is the fact-checking of her slickly reductive campaign bio: the one that depicted her as a struggling but devoted single mother who gutted her way through Harvard Law School. It has since been revealed that the real-life version of events included a second husband who helped out with school loans and primary childcare.
Clinton’s story, the details of which are known to everyone on the planet, involves her choice to stay with her husband through his affair with Monica Lewinsky and all the other rumored cases of infidelity. In her case, it’s not just men who’ve leapt to judge: Rand Paul’s wife served as a stalking horse for his case against the Clinton marriage, telling Vogue that Bill’s relationship with Lewinsky was “predatory.” Paul himself has taken it a step closer to Hillary, calling Bill an “unsavory character” and wondering, "What if that unsavory character is your husband?" But when GOP chief Reince Priebus defended Paul’s line of attack this week by explaining that for Republicans, “everything is on the table,” all I could do was shrug.
Of course everything is on the table. For women, everything is always on the table, including the table itself, and whatever food the woman in question failed to put on it last night….or some night several decades ago.
Women’s worth has never been assessed based on easily calculable, publicly available statistics, like innings pitched or bills passed. There is no accounting of female professional achievement that does not also add up the raw data on personal, familial effort; there is no admiration that is not instantly accompanied by interrogation: How does she do it? No. Really. How does she do it? How many nights does she spend with her kids? How many hours does she work and is that why she is single? How many affairs has she had, or has she forgiven, or, most insidiously, has she inspired through her inattention to wifely duty?
Davis’s real mistake was in behaving like she could get away with an Easy-Bake personal narrative—like George Bush, the rancher from Texas, or Mitt Romney, who didn’t inherit any money from his dad—without getting audited in a big and gruesome way.
Robert Draper’s Times Magazine piece is in fact very thoughtful on just these subjects. It opens and closes with his look at Davis’ concrete achievements in Fort Worth, Texas, where she spurred civic development in stagnant neighborhoods, supported struggling businesses, helped to relocate tenants of a housing project. Draper calls the evidence of her work “compelling, tangible and…factually unassailable.” And he openly addresses the particularly female responsibility to answer for “the personal sacrifices that went into the building of this bridge or that residential tower.”
But his story also diligently sifts through the particulars of those personal sacrifices; he reports on how Davis, her ex-husband and her grown daughter give differing accounts of how many days a month Davis spent in Texas with her family during the three years that she attended law school at Harvard in the early 1990s. Davis says she came home every ten days; her daughter says every two weeks; her ex says she aimed for every three weeks but made it once a month.
Of course, within a family, the details of parental absence matter. Parents and children and partners argue about them, judge each other based on them.
But the Rashomon-like retelling of those details becomes almost comical in this context. Perhaps especially in how closely it recalls, say, the 2006 New York Times story that toted up the number of days and nights Hillary and Bill Clinton spent together: “Since the start of 2005, the Clintons have been together about 14 days a month on average…Last August, they saw each other at some point on 24 out of 31 days. Out of the last 73 weekends, they spent 51 together.”
It gets even funnier if you go back and watch Barbara Walters’ 1984 interview with then prospective vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, whose husband assures Walters that in six years in Congress, Ferraro missed only two weekends with her children.
Ten days, two weeks, once a month, 24 out of 31 days, six years, two weekends, one Democratic vice-presidential candidate, 11 hours on the floor of the Texas State Legislature, 18 million cracks in a glass ceiling.
It’s the new (old) math of public womanhood.
For generations, women have understood these calculations, and not just how they work for politicians: They get that love, sex and forgiveness are often leveraged against economic, professional and educational concerns. They understand that imperfect marriages can provide economic stability, that the question of having children or not having children is integral to questions of making money and making less money and making no money. They get that professional commitments mean fewer Saturdays with kids, fewer hours spent tending to the emotional needs of partners, fewer evenings having their own needs tended to.
Of course, men make these calculations too. But they’ve rarely been evaluated on the private half of their record, because male value is so rarely weighed on domestic scales.
Consider our current president, an example of a new generation of man, who has tallied the dinner-bedtime-commuting points and confessed to his own poor score, especially when his career took off and he left his equally ambitious wife to an unequal domestic burden. “No matter how much I told myself that Michelle and I were equal partners,” Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope, “the fact was that when children showed up, it was Michelle and not I who was expected to make the necessary adjustments. Sure, I helped, but it was always on my terms, on my schedule. Meanwhile, she was the one who had to put her career on hold.” At points during his 2000 run for Congress, when their girls were small, he continues, Michelle’s “anger toward me seemed barely contained.”
But when this public man—a man loathed by opponents eager to attack him from any angle—directs the critical domestic lens we reserve for women at himself, he escapes relatively unscathed. His rivals don’t interrogate the veracity of his familial devotion, even when he tells them directly that his choices made his wife very unhappy.
That’s because those just aren’t the kinds of stories we tell about men. They’re the stories we tell about women. And they’re getting really, really old.