- - Wednesday, April 6, 2016


The presidential campaigns are scrambling in the wake of Wisconsin to manipulate images of women, forcing them into caricatures of whatever stereotype works. Spouses are thrust into a limelight they haven’t sought, and everybody’s looking for gaffe, grit (true and otherwise) and glamour.

Presidential styles have changed since George Washington escorted Martha, with great fanfare, on a barge from New Jersey to the temporary capital in New York at the beginning of an American tradition of presidential wives participating both formally and informally in ritual and ceremony of the presidency.

Martha was never expected to campaign, and wives of men running for the highest office in the land have never followed specific rules. Such rules as there are mostly reflect their husband’s needs. Wives are on call as decoration, wifely support and maternal accomplishment. (Fill in your own blank for what Hillary has in mind for the model First Gentleman.)

Donald Trump, finally sensing vulnerability among women voters, imported Melania to Wisconsin to rescue his sagging numbers with the ladies. The beautiful model who is his third wife complied with grace. She had been exposed in a provocative nude photograph from her early modeling career, retrieved in an advertisement posted by a super PAC supporting Ted Cruz. It’s well known that she didn’t want her husband to run for president, but she’s a trouper. She does not fit the popular image of a feminist, and with her beauty and a soft Slovenian accent she evoked equality from her wifely point of view.

“No matter who you are, a man or a woman, he treats everyone equal,” Mrs. Trump said of her husband in a “speech” that ran only a little more than 60 seconds. If certain victims of his misogynist vitriol had been present, they might have muttered under their breath, “Yeah, equally bad.” Melania nevertheless carried off her appearance with tact and charm. However much Donald Trump insists he loves women, it’s hard to square her tribute with his gratuitous nastiness toward Megyn Kelly for her tough but fair questioning of his misogynous diatribes, his bizarre scorn for Carly Fiorina’s face, and a particularly vicious tweet with an unflattering image of Heidi Cruz next to a photograph of the gorgeous wife with the caption: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” (In a rare show of second thought, he said it was a mistake. Indeed.)

In a perverse way, Donald Trump testifies to the success of feminism and the mutilation of chivalry, making no woman immune from unmanly attack. He makes it difficult for any woman to say nice things on his behalf. He has managed to get a little help from Ivana Trump, his first wife, whose accusations in severely acrimonious divorce proceedings were once fodder for the tabloids. Ivana now defends the “feminism” of her ex-husband, telling the New York Post that his support in her business affairs is proof of his respect for women.

The Donald’s take-no-prisoners approach to everything springs from pugilistic opportunism, which Melania tried to defend with feline spin. “As you may know by now,” she told an election-eve rally in Milwaukee, “when you attack him he will punch back 10 times harder. He’s a fighter, and if you elect him to be our president, he will fight for you and for our country.” Nice try, but most women in Wisconsin were not persuaded.

Ted Cruz has problems with women, too, and took another route in Wisconsin to mellow his image with a rally he described as “a celebration of women.” He was flanked by his wife Heidi, his mother Eleanor, age 81, and Carly Fiorina. He spoke with a husband’s pride and affection for Heidi, observing how hard it is for her to take leave from her position at Goldman Sachs to campaign with him. He dismissed supermarket tabloid rumors of adultery as “garbage” manufactured by the Donald, “who can’t debate substance.”

Hillary Clinton, too, has difficulties with women, particularly younger women for whom she is a relic of the immediate past. She took a hard blow from Bernie Sanders, telling a town hall rally in New York as Wisconsin was counting its votes that “we still have a long way to go before we can honestly tell our daughters you can be anything you want, including president.”

Hillary beats Donald Trump big in match-up polls, but her campaign is concerned over his questions about her stamina, fitness and competence, accusing him of being “sexist” when he suggests her stumbles are due to more than fatigue. This smacks of a subtle plea for a little chivalry, after all. But a presidential campaign is a bare-knuckle brawl, and whether in the ring or at ringside, women must expect to take off the gloves, too.

Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.

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