Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Notes on Politics: Jenny Sanford Goes Public and Gets Critiqued

Jenny Sanford -- the soon-to-be-ex-wife of South Carolina Gov. Mark "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" Sanford -- has been all over the media promoting her memoir, Staying True, about her life with the man who humiliated her by going on national television and tearfully declaring that his mistress was his "soul mate."

Sanford's the anti-Good Wife, the lead character of a CBS drama about a wife who has remained married to her philandering politician husband (who slept with prostitutes) who's incarcerated on charges of political corruption. Jenny Sanford decided she wasn't going to put up with her husband's insane behavior any longer, after several attempts to reconcile with him. So she's divorcing Mark Sanford and wrote a book about their experiences together. Jenny Sanford, who took time off from her career to raise the Sanfords' four boys and provide political advice to her husband, says she wants to return to work soon, but in the meantime, she's promoting Staying True and fielding criticism for doing so.

When she appeared on MSNBC's Morning Joe this morning, co-host Mika Brzezinski said that Jenny Sanford "chose a public route with this book" and asked how her four children are handling all of this publicity. Sanford responded, rightfully so, by pointing out that it was her husband who made this all public in the first place, whose e-mails to and from his lover were read from coast-to-coast. "It would not have been my choice to bring this scandal out in the light," Sanford said. (She also appeared on The Daily Show where she was asked a similar question.)

Going ahead and writing this book has made Jenny Sanford the target of criticism and public debate about her own level of responsibility for her predicament and whether she's hurting her children by speaking out publicly:

On Huffington Post, there was an entry debating whether she should've stayed with her cheating husband.

The Washington Post pinned the blame on Sanford for putting up with mistreatment, with writer Ruth Marcus commenting, ". . . [T]he most disappointing part of Staying True is that, consciously or not, Jenny Sanford reveals her own complicity -- not in facilitating her husband's affair, but in allowing herself to be treated so badly for so long."

PunditMom was likewise disappointed in Jenny Sanford after reading excerpts from her memoir, saying, "By marrying [Mark Sanford] and allowing her sons to see her treated in such a casually neglectful way, it sure doesn’t seem like she stayed true to herself or to her obligation as a parent to give her children an example of what a healthy marriage should look like . . . Clearly, their marriage was lacking. One could say, well that’s just between them, but it isn’t — they have four sons who’ve watched and learned about what a woman is willing to put up with for the sake of keeping her man, even a louse who acts like he couldn’t care less."

The same criticism could and has been lobbed at Hillary Clinton -- who also wrote a book mentioning her husband's mistreatment -- as well as at other wives of male politicians who've not only publicly discussed their husband's infidelity but remained married to the men who have treated them poorly, and in full view of their children. I'm of the mind that it's really, really difficult to say what you, personally, would do if you were Jenny Sanford or Hillary Clinton. It makes me uncomfortable to judge women as strong (or good role models) based on whether they stay or leave their cheating husbands, or whether they put their own story out into the public sphere or suffer in silence (like Silda Spitzer).

I keep thinking of Elizabeth Edwards who wrote her own memoir detailing her response to learning that her husband John had cheated on her, and decided that she'd stay married to him. A year later, after all manner of scandal and searingly awful personal details have come out about Elizabeth and John Edwards and John's mistress (and his love child), and the couple has announced their separation. Am I going to judge Elizabeth Edwards for writing her book, talking publicly about the pain John caused her and her decision to stay with him in 2009, and now, a year later, she's changed her mind? Nope. I'm not Elizabeth Edwards. And I'm not Jenny Sanford nor am I Hillary Clinton. I feel for all of these women and hope that they, and their children, can somehow find some peace amid the wreckage caused by their cheating husbands.

Image credit: Jenny Sanford's web site.

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