The XX Factor

Sanford and Nordegren Are Romantic Heroines

We judge men as hypocrites all the time, so why shouldn’t women have to live by that standard? We skewered John Edwards for talking about the poor while getting a $400 hair cut (in retrospect, the least of his transgressions). We condemned Mark Sanford for touting family values and having an affair. So it matters what Jenny Sanford and Elin Nordegren choose to do in response to this public humiliation. It doesn’t matter absolutely. It shouldn’t be, as you say, Jessica , a feminist litmus test. But it does mean something.

There is a disturbing trend in feminism lately to turn women into passive beings. We saw it during the Botax debate, in which Gloria Steinem and other feminist leaders were arguing that the tax on cosmetic surgery discriminated against middle-aged women. The problem, argued Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization of Women, was that many women take time off to raise children and then try to re-enter the workforce in their forties and fifties and are deemed too old.

The assumption here is that things happen to women; that they are the victims of larger societal forces they can not control. But women are making choices. They choose whether to stay home or not stay home. And as I say to my children all the time, there are consequences to these choices. If you stay home for 10 years, more power to you, but you can not expect finding a job in middle age to be easy. Sanford and Nordegren are choosing to leave powerful husbands, and that counts as a kind of bravery, or, at the very least, a strike against passivity. They may not have chosen to be public icons but the fact is, they are, so now their decisions resonate.

Does that make them feminist icons? I’m not sure. Divorce as a feminist statement is a very 1970s idea, and women have already won that battle. Surviving through your husband’s philandering and then upstaging him, as Hillary did, almost seems like the more radical thing. For my part, I consider it less a victory for feminism than one for romance. The standard view of both these women is that they have struck some deal, either actually or implicitly, trading money or status for love. But apparently both of them are still capable of having their hearts broken.