A Perfectly Good Job for a Man: Political Spouse

I should know. I’m one of them.

Women on the world stage are increasingly playing lead roles. Whether New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, the newest all-female Finnish government’s cabinet led by 35-year old Prime Minister Sanna Marin or the record number of American women who ran and won in the 2018 midterm elections, women are moving on up. Get used to it.

Increasingly, women have elbowed and edged their way into previously male-dominated representative chambers around the world in what were once more smoke-filled men’s clubs than curtained lactation stations. As a result, the public, too, should wake up and prepare for a new category of men who will accompany and support these freshly elected women.

Happily, I am one of them. Last year, I became California’s “Second Partner” after my wife, Eleni Kounalakis, was elected overwhelmingly the state’s first female lieutenant governor.

A friend at a Washington, D.C., think tank now jokingly introduces me as Sacramento’s Denis Thatcher, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s husband and the butt of many jokes.

What do my male cohorts and I share with Sir Thatcher? We all married strong, confident women who neither threaten us nor our masculinity. We don’t compete with our spouses either for public affection or attention and we are in mutually respectful and loving relationships. We are supportive. We work as a team bringing up our kids and making financial decisions.

California’s “First Partner” Jennifer Newsom argues in Glamour magazine that achieving gender equality requires burden sharing. She says it’s imperative that we “stop treating parenting as a mom’s burden and a dad’s adorable hobby.” She’s right, and I’ve done my best over the years. In fact, I enjoy it. So do the other guys I know married to political spouses.

First, we are confident, self-assured men. When I’m with my wife in a political context, my role is not to show others how great I am, it is to highlight her incredible strengths and attributes. To her credit, she always acknowledges me and my support, but knowing what my role is and how to manage it is really important. My colleagues and I try to remain immune to those who needle us about being obedient trailing spouses — their projections and insecurities rarely affect us.

Second, the political spouses I know have satisfying careers and work. Both men and women married to public servants need an avocation or profession outside politics to give them purpose, pride and strength. That can be a career, taking care of a family, going to school, writing a book. Whatever it is, it must be important to the person and find respect and support at home. It’s important to have a life. Thankfully, I have both a wife and a life.

Third, political spouses know that attaining and maintaining public office is a whole family effort. Spouses and their political partners, children and other family members need to understand the job and its personal and professional demands. Politics, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reminds her colleagues, “is not for the faint of heart.” It requires a strong family structure to weather the political barbs, false narratives, personal attacks and, in the case of women, their inordinate dismissal and devaluation.

If that last part sounds as if women are treated differently in politics and business, welcome to the real world. Unfortunately, women are socially limited in their response options when attacked for their competence, experience or overall qualification. A guy has a broad and forceful palette of societally acceptable responses and actions, but a woman generally is limited to a narrower range of approaches that keep her from being labeled a vicious cur, or, alternatively, weak and indecisive. I’ve seen it all first-hand.

My family learned how a public-service job works from the days when my wife was U.S. ambassador to Hungary, an old-world country with old-world attitudes. The U.S. State Department was no better, restricting me professionally to academia. No more journalism or jobs. Regardless, our time in Budapest became magical. I helped our two boys grow more socially and culturally aware, despite gaps in my parenting capabilities.

As my wife wrote in “Madam Ambassador,” her 2015 memoir, “Markos was a great father, but a so-so mother.” But what I lacked in nurturing our sons, I made up for with adventure and intrigue. I grew closer to my boys and together we took three-man international treks with few provisions or clear destinations.

Today, the majority of political spouses around the world remain women. I am studying how they successfully manage their prominent roles while balancing their lives, careers and marriages

The spousal equation has begun to change as more men join their publicly prominent wives, partners, and husbands while forging new roles and killing off dated and sexist traditions. Don’t expect Clarke Gayford, Paul Pelosi, Markus Räikkönen, or me to bake cookies anytime soon.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.