Question public emulation of forgiveness for politicians’ infidelity
Often, a fine line exists between forgiveness and acceptance of someone’s wrongdoings at one’s own detriment. On the one hand, as a proverb frequently attributed to Buddha goes, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” On the other hand, holding people accountable for their actions is often necessary.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has traversed this fine line with her husband, former president Bill Clinton. After she endured his scandal with Monica Lewinsky and remained at his side in spite of it all, people often portray her tolerance as something to emulate — but it is important to recognize the consequences of exalting her decision to stay.
Just this past Sunday, Hillary Clinton visited the Holy Ghost Cathedral in downtown Detroit, where part of her visit revolved around her virtue of forgiveness, according to a March 6 Washington Post article. Contextually referring to but not specifically mentioning her husband, the former Secretary of State spoke of how scripture had guided her merciful reaction to Bill Clinton’s affair.
Needless to say, Hillary Clinton has every right to choose to forgive or begrudge her husband as she deems fit, but the example she has set for young women across America is troubling all the same. As a prominent, powerful female politician who may become the first woman president, Hillary Clinton has become a feminist icon of sorts — and will only be more of one if she does win the bid for the presidency. In this role, she has the ability to show women that their lives can be more than what society has historically allowed and that they don’t have to accept anything less than the best anymore — but her relationship with her husband complicates that message.
In choosing to forgive her husband for the pain and scandal he brought upon her, Hillary Clinton placed the survival of their marriage — and, some may argue, her political career — above her own feelings.
While there is something to be said for attempting to repair broken relationships, it should never be done at the expense of anyone’s emotional well-being, and two people should never stay together just for the sake of salvaging a marriage.
“Until the latter part of the nineteenth century, divorce was largely proscribed by law,” wrote Sociology Professor Frank Furstenberg, Jr., of the University of Pennsylvania in his 1994 report “History and Current Status of Divorce in the United States.” Even after that, however, divorce remained taboo for a long time, and due to inequality in the workplace, many women remained too financially dependent on their husbands to leave. As such, people often remained in unhappy marriages or felt forced to forgive unfaithful spouses. Now, however, although some may still consider a failed marriage a personal failure, people — especially women — are less trapped in their marriages. Still, up to 80 percent of couples reconcile after experiencing infidelity, according to a May 1, 2012 Wall Street Journal article.
Many politicians’ marriages — not just the Clintons’ — reflect this phenomenon and bring it to the public eye. From Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson to former president John F. Kennedy and former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Ca.), prominent male politicians cheat on their spouses with notorious frequency, and, more often than not, their wives ultimately remain with them.
One could speculate endlessly whether they remain due to love, power, societal pressure or any combination of the three, but the point is that they remain, and that has become the status quo. By remaining with her husband, Hillary Clinton joined the ranks of Eliza Hamilton, Martha Jefferson, Jackie Kennedy and Maria Shriver. While these women are far from shabby company, society has received their eventual acceptance of their husbands’ infidelity as a virtue to emulate and even expect. In other words, society has glorified them for their grace and mercy in the wake of suffering, and as they have set a prominent precedent, such grace and mercy have inadvertently become what society expects of scorned, respectable women — especially politicians’ wives.
The implicit message to women everywhere is that a good woman can react with anger only if she eventually forgives and stands by her man. Referring to Hillary Clinton’s own clemency, Holy Ghost Cathedral’s bishop, Corletta J. Vaughn, mentioned that the former Secretary of State had taught women to “take a licking and keep on ticking,” according to the same March 6 Washington Post article. This attitude toward acceptance of infidelity or relationship issues in general poses problems because it operates under the expectations that husbands will, at some point, hurt their wives and that their wives will, at some point, accept and forgive. In order to have equality and healthy relationships, people must reject both of these conditions and fully support a person’s freedom to leave a relationship if hurt in any way by their significant other.
At the end of the day, a core tenet of feminism involves a woman making her own choices without interference from the law, society, men or other women. Consequently, Hillary Clinton, as a freethinking individual, has every right to respond to problems in her marriage in whatever way she feels appropriate without having to deal with anyone’s interference or judgment. Hillary Clinton, as a role model, however, sets a poor example for young women, who instead should be taught to expect better from their relationships.
Of Hillary Clinton, Bishop Vaughn remarked, “She taught so many of us as women how to stand in the face of adversity,” according to the same March 6 Washington Post article. While this lesson of strength is admirable in many ways, the lesson need not always be to “stand” in adversity but rather to sometimes walk away from it.
In the case of marital problems, there is strength in staying and there is strength in leaving — and to elevate one decision above the other risks giving someone the impression they do not have a choice.
Emulating Hillary Clinton for remaining with a husband who hurt and disrespected her so severely only further normalizes staying with partners who selfishly disregard one’s emotional well-being. Romanticizing her forgiveness perpetuates society’s toxic expectation that women always forgive their husbands’ transgressions. Even though Hillary Clinton stayed with her husband, women everywhere need to understand that, as they gain more freedom and less dependency on their husbands, they do not have to follow her example.
If a woman chooses to forgive a spouse’s infidelity because she wishes to salvage a relationship with someone she still loves, that is her prerogative — but if she feels pressured into staying because that’s what society has taught her all her life, that is a problem.