Thursday, July 12, 2007

Lady Bird Johnson, RIP

I have been reading the obituaries on Lady Bird Johnson's long life, and it occurred to me how closely the accolades she received were based on traditional gender roles. Take this quote:

Lady Bird Johnson, the widow of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was once described by her husband as "the brains and money of this family" and whose business skills cushioned his road to the White House, died yesterday afternoon at her home in Austin, Tex. She was 94.

Mrs. Johnson was hospitalized for a week last month with a low-grade fever. She died of natural causes, surrounded by family, including her two daughters, and friends, said a family spokeswoman, Elizabeth Christian.

Mrs. Johnson was a calm and steadying influence on her often moody and volatile husband as she quietly attended to the demands imposed by his career. Liz Carpenter, her press secretary during her years in the White House, once wrote that "if President Johnson was the long arm, Lady Bird Johnson was the gentle hand."

She softened hurts, mediated quarrels and won over many political opponents. Johnson often said his political ascent would have been inconceivable without his wife's devotion and forbearance. Others shared that belief.

This is very much the traditional path a woman can take towards power, by being the supportive helpmate behind a powerful man. It's also traditional to imply that she was the real brains or whatever behind the partnership, but that statement never makes people wonder why the real brains took the second place.

Something else is also quite traditional in that quote, and that is the acknowledgment that she, too, was in the game of politics. Spouses can play the game as long as it's played quietly, as if in pillow talk. What spouses (or rather wives) CANNOT do is play the game in public, as Hillary Clinton did. That is not allowed, because it ruins the helpmate myth.

I have no idea if Lady Bird Johnson actually was the traditional political helpmate. She achieved a lot during her life, in any case. But note that the "reflected glory" that is the reward of the traditional political wife is not something that carries over very well when we do a gender reversal. If Lady Bird Johnson had been the husband of a female president her achievements would look a lot less impressive. This is something that needs to be addressed if we want to see more women in politics.