There was panic in Washington as the French President Francois Hollande was coming without a wife, and all known etiquette in hosting foreign leaders, apparently, was based on a wife accompanying them. Oh horror of horrors! It was such a scandal. Invitations and seating arrangements had already been made assuming his partner would join him, and DC would melt if they were shamed to be wrong.
Well, this is at least a better scandal than if the US capital refused to allow Hollande’s since-separated common-law partner, Valerie Trierweiler, to come on the basis that they weren’t traditionally married. That may, however, be more of an acceptance that it’s just as valid for a non-married woman to be the property of her male partner as it is for a wife belonging to a husband – that she is just as ornamental for diplomatic occasions. Consider along with that point the question some people had about why Julie Gayet, the actress Hollande had an alleged affair with, didn’t come with him either. Perhaps it’s because…they’re not in an actual relationship, and she chooses not to be his arm candy? The reputation of the country does not rely on this. Liberated female sexuality is not anti-French in the least – and with the manners the French are reputed for, do we care if they get offended by a faux pas committed? They’re where the term “faux pas” comes from.
This serves as a great example of the heteronormative classist patriarchy we expect of our leaders – not only is the leader implicitly expected to be an assertive man with a graceful and beautiful wife, but we don’t know what to do with ourselves if that’s not the case. If a heterosexual female leader brings her husband, is he to be treated the same way by the First Lady as she would a male leader’s wife – as equals, as counterparts, as diplomatic friends? They can’t speak of each other’s dresses and jewelry the way we expect leaders’ wives to converse. There is a long way to go in what we expect of politicians’ spouses, including removing the insistence that there be one.
The only non-married president in the history of the United States was James Buchanan, in the mid-19th century. Would he stand the public’s scrutiny today for being single? Would a heterosexual woman president’s husband be expected to stand by his spouse if there were an affair like Jackie O stood by JFK? (Asking the same questions with the Clintons as an example is difficult, because Hillary Rodham Clinton has no shortage of her own assertiveness in her separate political career.) The wife of a king can be queen, but the husband of a queen must be a prince, and in the United Kingdom perhaps that should change now that we’ve had time to come to terms with a girl with younger brothers retaining her place in line for the throne.
Shattering the established etiquette in these affairs will benefit most people – it removes several bricks in the barriers many of us face. It removes using spouses, mostly wives, as political tools of image and ceremony and also removes the pressure on leaders to secure a marriage for reasons other than their own happiness (just one example of how feminist principles help everyone, including men). It reduces the number of factors to juggle in maintaining image in order to lead, which can help empower the political careers of those disadvantaged by class. Sexual orientation and gender identity gain more flexibility when the false dichotomy is no longer a part of the painted shell public figures are expected to put on. State visits between different cultures can focus more on core issues when the leaders’ spouses are removed as ornaments and aren’t picked apart by their dress and other cultural practices. Beyond the intersectionalities of gender, race, class, sexuality, and cultural customs is an individual choice that we should all be free to have – the choice to be single, without a depreciation of status, and without public scrutiny.