When Democratic gubernatorial candidate Libby Mitchell moved to Maine 39 years ago, she had a political career in mind. Not for herself, though—her husband, Jim Mitchell, was taking a candidate-in-training job with Gov. Ken Curtis. Libby raised their two children during the day, taught adult education at night, and girded herself for the untitled position of political wife.
Over the next few years, however, husband and wife began to switch roles. Libby Mitchell, frustrated with the schools her kids were attending, launched a long-shot bid to dislodge the local Republican statehouse representative. She succeeded—giving birth to her third child just a week after being sworn in—and went on to become the only woman in the United States to serve as a state House speaker and Senate majority leader. Her husband ran for U.S. Congress in 1976 but didn’t win his primary. With four kids at home, he couldn’t risk another run and forgo a salary, so he shelved his ambitions to serve in Washington. Now a probate judge, he remains active in politics—principally behind the scenes, on behalf of his wife.
The Mitchells aren’t the only couple that switched roles. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a native of California, moved to Detroit after law school because her husband and former classmate, Dan Mulhern, wanted to run for office in his home state. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen traveled a similar path to New Hampshire. And Alex Sink stands a shot of nabbing the job her husband, Bill McBride, once coveted: governor of his home state of Florida.
These women’s path to power is a tricky one: It involves overtaking their husbands, essentially usurping their ambitions. It’s a path that is both old-fashioned and progressive. Sink, Shaheen, and Mitchell are in their 60s and 70s; when they were starting out, it would have been laughable for a woman to aspire to high office—particularly a woman with young children. At the same time, there is a long history of women marrying men who, wittingly or not, helped propel their careers. Look at the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo or Martin and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Clintons have always swapped ambitions. Early on, Hillary was the one who was considered the future political star, and they have since switched back and forth. In the current crop of switched-roles partnership, the original assumption may have been that the wives would help their husbands achieve public prominence. But they aged into progressive companionate marriages, where husband and wife seamlessly share professional and domestic roles. Consider Mulhern and Granholm, who is finishing her second and final term as governor of Michigan. Both initially assumed Mulhern would be the one to run—in fact, when the priest who married them asked what they would do if Granholm, rather than her finance, became a candidate, Mulhern dismissed the possibility out of hand. But when that hypothetical became a reality, Mulhern’s years in politics made him a valuable adviser. He helped draft speeches and weighed in on strategy decisions. Perhaps his biggest contribution, though, came on the home front: After his wife was elected governor, Mulhern shuttered his consulting business and became the principal caretaker to their three children. He understood how all-encompassing the position would be—and he found that taking over the reins at home wasn’t ultimately a sacrifice. “I’ve loved it,” Mulhern says. “I really needed that relational time with my kids.”
The New England spouses—Jim Mitchell and Billy Shaheen—have also been invaluable to their wives’ careers. From the beginning, Libby Mitchell says, her politically plugged-in husband introduced her to people who were helpful in her campaigns. That continues to this day: In September, Jim Mitchell, who is a native of Little Rock, arranged for his old acquaintance Bill Clinton to headline a rally on behalf of his wife. Jeanne Shaheen is a workhorse whose mastery of policy helped her become the only woman to serve as both governor and U.S. senator. Her gregarious husband, meanwhile, is a master organizer—he orchestrated Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and John Kerry’s first place showing in the all-important New Hampshire presidential primary. Observers say he’s a pro at rousing the troops and marshalling support on his wife’s behalf. Eight years ago, McBride made his political debut by attempting to dislodge Jeb Bush from the governorship. That effort was unsuccessful—he lost by a lopsided margin—but it proved a training ground for his wife. She traveled Florida with her own press contingent and headlined fundraisers on McBride’s behalf. When Sink decided to run for chief financial officer in 2006, she pointed to how she’d earned her stripes in her husband’s bid as evidence she could make her debut in statewide office. “Without that, I never could have started my political career by running for CFO,” she says. Her husband’s campaign proved a blueprint in what to do—and what to avoid. “I think they both learned a lot from the mistakes the McBride campaign made,” says Susan McManus, a political scientist at the University of Southern Florida.
Sink, and the other politicians in switched-roles marriages, speaks glowingly about how her spouse champions her career. But that doesn’t mean the transition has always been seamless. Dan Mulhern, for example, has spoken about how odd it was for him to see Granholm receive applause for lines in her speeches that he had written. “That was before I tamed my male ego,” he jokes. And when Bill Shaheen briefly ran Hillary Clinton’s presidential primary bid in New Hampshire, his comment about the role his wife would play hinted at some underlying competitiveness. “She takes the role that I took when I was a judge,” he told the Concord Monitor. “She has to stay home and be quiet.”
Younger women who knew from their 20s that they would be running probably won’t have to deal with the awkwardness of taking on a role their husbands had envisioned for themselves. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, * D-N.Y. and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., for example, are married to men with lower-key jobs that allow them to keep down the home front. Even with the older marriages, though, the men seem to have adjusted. “Libby was just better at winning races than I was,” says Jim Mitchell. “She’s a wonderful woman, and it’s been wonderful to see her rise.”
Correction, Oct. 27, 2010: The article originally misspelled Kirsten Gillibrand’s first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)