Belfast Telegraph

Lorraine Courtney: I don't want to watch interesting, smart women reduced to a clothes hanger for sake of partners' career

Left on the sidelines: from left, Akie Abe, wife of Japanese PM Shinzo Abe; Chile’s first lady Cecilia Morel; Jenny Morrison, wife of Australian PM Scott Morrison; Brigitte Macron, wife of French president Emmanuel Macron; US first lady Melania Trump; and Malgorzata Tusk, wife of EU president Donald Tusk
Left on the sidelines: from left, Akie Abe, wife of Japanese PM Shinzo Abe; Chile’s first lady Cecilia Morel; Jenny Morrison, wife of Australian PM Scott Morrison; Brigitte Macron, wife of French president Emmanuel Macron; US first lady Melania Trump; and Malgorzata Tusk, wife of EU president Donald Tusk

By Lorraine Courtney

Is there anything worse than being a political wag? It's all the hassle of public life with little of the power - a Stepford life of hairspray, dinner parties for people you don't like and being on constant display.

World leaders gathered in Biarritz for the G7 summit and, as their husbands thrashed out solutions to Brexit and climate change over brandy, Melania Trump, Brigitte Macron and other world leaders' wives visited the home of a famed French red pepper on the sidelines of the summit.

Political wifery is very gendered work. No other job requires a wife to show her support for her husband in such a public way.

It means doing all the things that have long been expected of women: that they be completely supportive and that they abandon their own ambitions and let their husband shine instead.

And they must always smile - even if you're Brigitte Macron being forced to plant a reluctant kiss on Donald Trump's bronzed cheek.

The women took a tour of the Basque region, eating lunches and watching traditional performances. It was a frivolous itinerary that showed their insignificance to the real event.

They visited the village of Espelette and had lunch at the Villa Arnaga, built by Edmond Rostand, the French playwright who wrote Cyrano de Bergerac.

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Reading about it all is a sexist slap in the face.

Why on Earth were these women in France if sightseeing was all they were allowed do?

In the 21st century, we all expect that our leaders' wives play meaningful roles, but if you read this week's papers, we seem to be living in the 1950s.

Headlines gushed about Melania's Alexander McQueen dress; nobody said anything about the cut of Donald Tusk's suit.

If money, mobility and social freedom give women the right to choose whatever suits them best, then why do the women married to the men who run our world completely abandon their own agency? Michelle Obama had to sacrifice her day job, her personal opinions and her family's privacy at the altar of her husband's political career. As she said in her speech to the 2012 Democratic convention: "My most important title is still mum-in-chief."

Speaking in an interview on BBC last year, Ms Obama said: "I still have a little imposter syndrome... that you're actually listening to me. It doesn't go away, that feeling that you shouldn't take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is."

Female leaders have rarely had the luxury of a decorative sidekick. Angela Merkel has managed very well without having her husband beside her for every photo-opportunity.

Quantum chemist Joachim Sauer, Angela Merkel's husband, doesn't play Mr Merkel. Famously, he didn't even attend her inauguration. He watched it on television in his university laboratory. Philip May was very often absent from Theresa's side, too.

Not every First Wife was prepared to be arm candy. During a 12-year tenure, Eleanor Roosevelt defied southern Democrats by championing civil rights, writing several newspaper and magazine columns and holding women-only press conferences.

In 1992, Hillary Clinton, fed up of questions about whether she could be a supportive political wife while having a job, said that she "could have stayed home and baked cookies".

Her comment insulted full-time homemakers and she had to enter a Family Circle cookie recipe contest against Barbara Bush to make up for it.

While feminism is having its most popular cultural moment in decades, political wives can and should use this to their advantage.

These women have power and influence - it's a shame to let these go to waste. I don't want to keep on watching bright and interesting women reduced to a clothes hanger for the sake of their partners' careers.

If there must be wags at the summit next year, let them stand centre stage, not to one side, smiling benignly in pretty dresses.

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