The XX Factor

Newt Gingrich’s Behavior Is Actually Quite Traditional

Newt Gingrich.
Newt Gingrich speaks during a primary-night rally with his wife Callista Gingrich in Columbia, S.C.

T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

The New York Times is using the occasion of Marianne Gingrich’s claims that Newt asked her for an open marriage to host another one of their baffling debates where everyone simply states their point of view without really delving much into the evidence. The question is, to paraphrase: “Open marriage? Yea or nay?” (For what it’s worth, I agree with Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá that the answer is, “Depends on the couple.”) This is all well and good, but I have to point out that it really has nothing to do with Newt, Callista, and Marianne Gingrich’s situation, something only Dan Savage even bothers to touch much upon.

The thing is, I don’t think Newt Gingrich was actually asking for an “open marriage,” per se. Even Marianne admits that’s her phrasing. What she specifically said that he asked for was that she accept that he have both his wife and his mistress. Which, while we are all having a good snicker at Mr. Family Values asking his wife for this, the reality is that a powerful man having a wife to take care of him professionally and socially while keeping a mistress to care for him emotionally and sexually fits right into the traditional culture that Gingrich is always blathering about bringing back. This was even enshrined in the law of Victorian England, for instance, which allowed men to sue for divorce on the grounds of adultery, but didn’t extend that right to women.

“Open marriage” is an invention of a feminist era. The idea is to have a marriage where dalliances are tolerated or even encouraged for both men and women, or in some combination where both partners are getting something out of it. Since it’s rooted in this egalitarian ideal, it actually has very little in common with what Gingrich was suggesting, which was the more traditional “he cheats, she suffers in silence” model. Marianne was using the term incorrectly, probably because she, being a conservative Republican herself, doesn’t completely understand how open marriages differ from the wife-plus-mistress model, and also because she was looking for a term that sounded scandalous and would increase media interest. In that, she succeeded. Honestly, considering how much damage he did to her life, it’s hard to blame her for looking for any way to maximize her revenge.

But let’s be clear: There’s nothing nontraditional about what Gingrich was asking for, which is why the traditionalist voters didn’t hold it against him. That’s why it’s grotesque the way that Gingrich, and conservatives in general, go on and on about “tradition.” Progressives aren’t throwing off tradition to be bratty. We’re fighting traditions that are morally corrupt, such as racism and male dominance. With Gingrich’s serial adulteries, we’ve gotten an ugly glimpse of what upholding tradition really means, though I doubt the lesson will actually stick with many.