The presidential candidates are scrambling in the wake of the Wisconsin primary 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 Washington, with great fanfare, on a barge from New Jersey to New York City, the temporary U.S. capital. This was the beginning of an American tradition of presidents' wives participating both formally and informally in presidential rituals and ceremonies.
Martha Washington was never expected to campaign. The wives of men running for the highest office in the land have never followed specific rules. Any such rules would mostly reflect their husband's needs. Wives are on call as decoration, to show wifely support and maternal accomplishment. (Fill in your own blank for what Hillary Clinton has in mind for the model first gentleman.)
Donald Trump, finally sensing vulnerability among women voters, imported his wife, Melania Trump, to Wisconsin to rescue his sagging numbers with the ladies. The beautiful model, who is Trump's third wife, complied with grace. She had recently been exposed in a provocative nude photograph from her early modeling career, which was retrieved and placed in an advertisement posted by an anti-Trump super PAC. It is 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 as a feminist, and with her beauty and soft Slovenian accent, she evoked his sense of equality from her wifely point of view. "No matter who you are, a man or a woman, he treats everyone equal," she said of her husband in a "speech" that ran only a little more than 90 seconds.
If certain victims of his misogynist vitriol had been present, they might have muttered under their breath, "yeah, she's equally bad." Melania Trump nevertheless carried off her appearance with tact and charm. But however much Donald Trump insists he loves women, it's hard to square her tribute with his gratuitous nastiness toward journalist 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 his 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 it was.)
In a perverse way, Donald Trump testifies to the success of feminism and the mutilation of chivalry -- no one, man or woman, is immune from his verbal attacks. He makes it difficult for any woman to say nice things on his behalf. However, 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 "feminist values" of her ex-husband, telling the New York Post that his support of 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 Trump tried to defend with a feminine spin. "As you may know by now," she said at an election-eve rally in Milwaukee, "when you attack him, he will punch back ten 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 also has problems with women, but he took another route in Wisconsin to mellow his image: He described a campaign rally as a "celebration of women." He was flanked by his wife, Heidi, his mother, Eleanor, and Carly Fiorina. He spoke with a husband's pride and affection for Heidi, recognizing how hard it is for her to take a leave of absence from her position at Goldman Sachs to campaign with him. He has also previously dismissed supermarket tabloid rumors of adultery as "garbage" manufactured by the Donald, who "can't debate the 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 Sen. Bernie Sanders' win in Wisconsin. But as Wisconsin was counting its votes, she appealed to women at a town-hall rally in Brooklyn, New York, saying, "we still have a long way to go before we can honestly say to our daughters, 'yes, you can be anything you want to be, including president of the United States.'"
Clinton beats Trump big in matchup polls, but her campaign is concerned over his questions about her stamina, strength and competence. She accused him of being "sexist" for suggesting her stumbles are due to more than fatigue. This smacks of a subtle plea for a little chivalry. 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.