The Silda Spitzer Lesson

Don’t quit your day job.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal.

Silda Spitzer

Wife again standing mutely at his side, Eliot Spitzer resigned from his office as governor of the state of New York. When Spitzer’s wife, Silda, called Hillary Clinton for advice on how to be a good first lady a few years ago, she probably didn’t realize how horribly relevant the connection would be. Now, another blond deer caught in the headlights standing by her man rotates endlessly on our TV screens while pundits like Dr. Laura debate whether she was good enough in bed and saner voices implore the public not to blame the victim.

Everyone is asking what he could have been thinking: Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, David Vitter, all caught, all paying a price—many a very high price. The guy had a perfect law-school test score. Don’t they teach reasoning by analogy at Harvard Law School? But why not ask the same question about her? She went to Harvard, too. Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, the first Mrs. Gingrich on her hospital bed. Silda Spitzer could not have been ignorant of the history of alpha-male politicians; she called Hillary herself. What could she have done? What can any woman do?

How about this: Don’t quit your day job.

Silda Wall Spitzer was the poster child of the “opt-out revolution.” A graduate of Harvard Law School, she was one of the highest-billing associates at the incredibly successful mergers and acquisitions law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. *  Later, she went to the office of the general counsel of Chase bank. But sometime in the 1990s, like many of the other women of her class, she decided to “opt out,” to quit her job, in her words, as her husband began his electoral career to devote herself to raising their three daughters and to her philanthropies. She helped start the Children for Children Foundation, which teaches rich children social responsibility for the poor. *

It all looked so perfect—the beautiful, beautifully educated blond Upper East Side mom teaching the rich children at their private schools to share the lavish sums normally spent on their birthday parties instead of her working all night in the Skadden, Arps conference room doing deals. The exquisitely mannered Southern WASP smoothing the rough edges of her less refined husband (whose table manners were the subject of negative commentary in her New York Times profile a year or so ago) instead of counseling Chase in how to sell more variable mortgages. Who wouldn’t envy her privilege, wealth, insulation from harsh competition, and proxy power of her high-flying husband’s position? Real Housewives of New York City, indeed.

What happened? Like all revolutionaries, the opt-out revolutionaries often wind up bleeding on the barricades.  Sure, all marriages don’t end in the arms of an international prostitution ring. Indeed, in the Spitzers’ social class, the divorce rate is far from the 50 percent we so often read about. However, the rate of divorce, prostitution, online pornography, and the rest isn’t negligible, either. And even if the marriage does not break up, women’s decisions to make their social position completely dependent on the ambition, discipline, judgment, and steadiness of another human being is not only an act of extreme self-abnegation, it risks the very dramatic fall we have just witnessed in the Spitzer matter. Does anyone think that even as well-heeled a divorcée as Mrs. Spitzer would be the same force in philanthropic Upper East Side circles as the governor’s wife?

It is true that Hillary Clinton managed to make lemonade out of her situation. But that ending is the rare exception to the narrative that is likely to describe Silda Wall Spitzer’s social fall. And it pays to remember that Clinton was a mere six years away from her employment as a partner at the Rose Law Firm and a mere three years away from being the lead player in the first round of national health care when Bill took up with the intern. When she restarted her separate life, campaigning for the Democrats in 1998, she was offering more than her decade with a children’s birthday-party philanthropy. Her steely resolve in face of Bill Clinton’s depredations did not hurt her, but it was not the only asset she had.

Of course, the women who quit their jobs to tend their alpha-male husbands’ ambitions could just hire a private detective to follow him around all the time. But I think I’d prefer the mergers and acquisitions practice myself.

Slate V looks at the art of the political confession:

Correction, March 13, 2008: The original article incorrectly stated that the name that the name of the charitable organization started by Silda Spitzer is Children to Children. The name of the organization is Children for Children. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, March 17, 2008: The original article incorrectly stated that Silda Wall Spitzer graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. She did graduate from Harvard’s Law School, but not magna cum laude. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)