Marriage As Realpolitik

Marriage As Realpolitik


Elizabeth I had a proper perspective on political marriage. Having seen both her mother and her stepmother beheaded by her father, Henry VIII, for political expediency before she was 10, she wisely decided to live and die the “Virgin Queen.”

Elizabeth’s personal history taught her that a politically powerful woman could be at great risk from emotional entanglements. She would ultimately come to view the marriage bed not as a safe harbor from the intense pressures and demands of power — but as an arena of threat and danger, where political power could be diminished or lost completely. Tellingly, she revealed to an imperial envoy in 1563 that “If I follow the inclination of my nature, it is this: beggar woman and single, far rather than queen and married.” She knew well the limitations that both biology and culture placed on her sex — and spent her entire life struggling against them. “I have the heart of a man and not of a woman,” she said a few weeks before her death at 70. “I am not afraid of anything and my sex has not diminished my prestige.”

Elizabeth was in a profound sense a power hermaphrodite. Not being a modern woman wanting to “have it all,” she was willing to pay the price of being childless, despite constant pressure from her advisors to marry to secure the succession. “I am resolved never to marry,” she told the Scottish Ambassador Melville in 1564.

“Your Majesty thinks that if you were married you would be but Queen of England,” he replied. “Now you are both king and queen.”

Illustration by Van Howell for On The Issues

Her political position, however, did not prevent her from expressing her passionate nature. At 63 she embarked on the last great love affair of her life with the 34-year-old Earl of Essex, courting him with all the skill and power of her personality and loving him with all the intensity of her emotions. He responded by leading an open rebellion against her throne. Her answer to his betrayal was to cut off his head. It was business — not personal.

For royals and other powerful men and women of the 16th century marriage was business — a purely political act to create alliances, reinforce dynastic lines, and cement geopolitical initiatives. There was no expectation of love or erotic desire. It was assumed and expected that these issues would be taken care of in other venues.

Four hundred years later, the power marriage has evolved from being the metaphoric killing field that it represented for Elizabeth I into a bourgeois institution that is expected to provide not only political advantage but personal fulfillment. Today’s women of power are less honest and far more apologetic about their will to power than Elizabeth I. Just what are feminists to make of Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, whose recent television interview and probable divorce have captured an Armada of airtime? To say nothing of the marathon TV interview of Rep. Enid Greene Waldholz (R-Utah), after the FBI arrested her husband Joe for questioning about forged checks and other financial irregularities. It is a rare woman leader who, like former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, finds a Dennis Thatcher, by all accounts a loving, supportive, and thoroughly trouble-free husband. And it is a rare power wife — be she married to a captain of industry, a movie star, or the Prince of Wales — whose husband does not feel entitled to take advantage of the extramarital adventures that come his way.

British biographer A. N. Wilson notes in The New York Times that Diana’s problem was that she had not been taught the “Edwardian rules of marriage,” which include presenting a “united front before the eyes of the world, concealing much adultery and unhappiness in private.” However, Princess Diana is not of the Edwardian school but of the Oprahian one — the one in which the personal is not only the political but the public.

In her recent television interview, shattering the last vestige of monarchical mystique, she shared with over 200 million viewers worldwide details about her continuing struggles with bulimia, postpartum depression and self-mutilation. Compared to Margaret Thatcher for her skill at media manipulation (she has even taken to similarly referring to herself in the third person), Diana’s performance was a superb and simultaneous combination of the revealing, the recovering, and the vulnerable.

And like Thatcher, who cloaked herself in the image of the warrior housewife when she invaded the Falklands, Diana’s power drives dress themselves in the traditional image of the lioness protecting her cubs. She won’t go quietly. “That’s the problem,” she told viewers. “I’ll fight till the end because I believe that I have a role to fulfill and I’ve got two children to bring up.”

But where Diana eschews tradition and, as British journalist Suzanne Moore points out in the Guardian, “embodies modernity itself” is that she remains naive about what a royal marriage, even today, entails. The “modernity” that Diana embodies is the one that taught her that she could have it all without a price, that she had rights and was entitled to self-esteem, marital trust, happiness and personal fulfillment. Indeed she felt that these accrued to her not only through social position but also through gender. Like countless women, Diana was taught to view marriage through a collective mythology as the last refuge of the romantic utopian.

Ignoring the unequal political, financial, and social underpinnings of the institution as established and legally codified through patriarchy, Diana chose to focus on the expectations of an equity partnership. “I desperately loved my husband and I wanted to share everything together,” she told television viewers. “And I thought that we were a very good team.” Instead, the woman Moore calls “Goddess Diana — part-time saint, super model, and sexed-up Mother Theresa,” retreated into the particularly contemporary female demons of depression and eating disorders.

The fact that Diana has gained so much public support after her interview, especiallly among the middle and lower classes, attests to the hold that the female-as-victim posture has on the collective imagination. It’s not just the depression and eating disorders — it’s also her picture of one who loved not wisely, but too well; one who trusted but was betrayed, not only by her husband and her husband’s family, but by her lover. Admitting to an adulterous affair with her former riding instructor James Hewitt, Diana said, “Yes, I was in love with him. But I was very let down.”

Women especially can relate and connect. We’ve been rejected also. She’s recovering just like us. She suffers from low self-esteem even though she lives in a fantasy land. Through her therapizing and talk-show representation of reality, she gives a voice to the nameless millions who are kept warm in the middle of the night believing that even if you are one of the richest women in the world — a fairy-tale princess — you too can be binging and purging yourself mindless, you too can see only a misperception of your beauty when you look in your mirror.

Yet strangely enough, this image of royal victimhood and traditional femininity (Diana wants to be the “queen of people’s hearts,” to embrace the young, the diseased and the despised) is held up as a “feminist role model.” So says journalist Sarah Lyall, writing in The New York Times. Her main piece of evidence: two sentences of Diana’s interview where she says, “You know, people think that at the end of the day, a man is the only answer. Actually, a fulfilling job is better for me.”

An admiring Moore sees the “ghosts of other brave women from Elizabeth I to Florence Nightingale in Diana’s sad eyes.” What one might well ask instead is why — unlike those earlier women — she took refuge behind her own skirts, presented the shopworn image of a woman wronged, and refused to pay the price of her position and her power. Betrayal, rejection, and self-destructive behavior do not a political consciousness make. “Feminist princess” is an oxymoron. The fact that Diana has been able to accomplish this transformation attests to the desperate eagerness of some writers to claim any sympathetic celebrity as a bona fide member of the sisterhood.

Perhaps no one was brutal enough to spell out the truth about marriage and power to the shy 19-year-old who became engaged to Prince Charles so long ago. Her own understanding of the implications of affiliative power — as well as her own power drives (consenting to marry the future King of England has everything to do with power!) — may have been inchoate at best. The same cannot be said for Enid Greene Waldholz, described in one press account as a “sheltered Mormon princess,” who entered national consciousness a few months ago through another extraordinary tale of female love, trust, and betrayal in high places.

Unlike Diana, Waldholz was 35, a lawyer and a candidate for Congress when she married a Republican activist whose chief claim to fame, according to The New York Times, was as the “delegate with the silliest hat at the last Republican convention.” She had already lost one race for Congress in ’92 when she by her own account “miraculously” won a tight race — the most expensive Congressional campaign in 1994 — after a late infusion of $1.7 million, a mysterious campaign contribution that may turn out to have been illegal.

Starting out as a freshman arch-conservative and a rising star in the Republican Revolution, Waldholz was named by House Speaker Newt Gingrich to the powerful Rules Committee. She had vowed to use her legal knowledge to protect Utah against being duped by big government. A quick learner and Congress’ only nursing mother, it didn’t take her long to hold a fund-raising “shower” where admission was a $500 contribution to her re-election campaign.

Yet for two years, until Joe Waldholz was arrested six days after fleeing from Washington’s National Airport, this experienced attorney dismissed warnings from her staff about her husband’s financial mismanagement — bounced checks, stiffed hotel bills, stolen checks (including one supposedly eaten by a dog). It is alleged that he even forged her signature on thousands of campaign checks that were then transferred into 15 different accounts.

One month after the arrest — and besting Geraldine Ferraro’s famous 90-minute 1984 press conference about her husband’s financial dealings — Waldholz finally went public with an intensely emotional 4 1/2 hour Oprahian tell-all. Shifting from teary-eyed, to sobbing, to musing, to lawyerly, to competent politico, Waldholz told the sad story of her undoing through her marriage. “I loved Joe Waldholz and trusted him with all my heart,” she said, explaining how blind love and trust resulted in her laying aside her power, her critical intelligence and her natural vigilance. “I know now from the experience of the last four weeks, the person I loved and trusted never existed.”

Waldholz did not get the sympathy granted to Princess Diana. The press described her in terms like “vengeful single mother,” “hard-driving,” and “outspoken.” And she was clearly no ingenue when she married. Still, there are curious parallels. Like Diana, Enid claims to have bought into the equity marriage myth. “I believed that marriage was a partnership of equals and that each partner in that marriage should do what they were best at,” she told the world. And because Enid came to the conclusion that Joe was a wiz at finances — after all, he “gifted her with $5 million” when they married — she allowed him to be in total charge of not only her personal but her campaign finances.

Waldholz also shares a very modern unwillingness to admit the truth about marriage and power, and a very traditional female discomfort with the very notion of wanting it. She wore her power like a coat she felt she not only could remove but should remove at home. “For the first time in my life, I felt I didn’t always have to be the strong one,” she confided, sounding like a heroine out of Barbara Cartland. “I know it’s hard to understand how someone who was a trial attorney, deputy chief of staff to a governor, and chairman of a national political organization can be so fooled. But it was exactly because I was weary of always being the strong one. I thought I’d found someone who could accept me completely, that it was OK when I cried and showed weakness and showed emotion.”

Wanting so much not to be the “strong one,” Enid went so far as to not learn the access code to her own home answering machine, leaving Joe to take care of those minor details (like annoying creditors) while she went out and led the Revolution. “I was campaigning day and night. I believed that he was the one person that I could truly trust.” Enid presented her marriage as an institution that cancelled out all necessity of personal responsibility, as if the concept of a love partnership allowed for a dissolution of personal boundaries so complete that one could put one’s entire personal, psychological, and political fortunes into the hands of another.

Although Enid held the power card, she expected that she could bifurcate herself in her marriage. She not only welcomed but consistently reinforced the notion of power and responsibility being not intrinsic to her psychology but external to it. It was as if power were a weight that could be shed at will — through traditional female role-playing or denial of reality. And that if she put her power in the safekeeping of her husband, she could trust that it would be returned at her request.

The courts must decide whether Enid Waldholz either had prior knowledge of or participated in the alleged fraud and abuse that her husband has been charged with. And the electorate will decide [as of this writing, she intends to run for re-election] whether she will get to keep the political power she so cavalierly set aside every night as she went through her front door. In her press conference Waldholz said, “We all have in our lives something that we hang onto — something that we know in our heart and our soul and is the core of us. For me that was honesty and integrity.”

Guilty or innocent of potential legal charges, it appears that Waldholz has compromised the core of herself, lost her integrity, and allowed herself to be diminished by her sex and undone in her marriage.

Where is Elizabeth’s ghost when you need her?

Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.