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Married with alibi: why women aspiring to political office shouldn't use the my-husband-did-it excuse.

As President Clinton's tortured quest for a female attorney general came to a half with an unmarried, childless woman who lived with her mother, some feminist commentators took to seeing the fiasco as further proof of a backlash against working women, especially working mothers. But before Zoe Baird becomes any sort of fashionable feminist icon, suburbia's answer to Anita Hill, it's important not to gloss over one of her saga's key plot points. When faced with explaining why she broke immigration law by hiring a couple of illegally situated babysitters, Baird, a lawyer for more than 15 years now earning nearly half a million dollars a year, did what every self-respecting housewife in the firties would have done: She blamed her husband.

True, she accepted responsibility for breaking the law, and she also apologized. But throughout the confirmation hearings, she repeatedly blamed Yale Law professor Paul Gewirtz for the screw-up: "Since my husband did this ... I understood from what my husband told me, not reading the statute or not from talking to the lawyers myself... My understanding of the legal advice coming to me secondhand... My understanding is that my husband did not complete an I-9 form .... "

According to Baird, it was Gewirtz who handled all of the legal and tax work in hiring the Peruvian couple. The implication is that Gewirtz didn't do a very good job as the family's lawyer and that he didn't fully inform his wife of what was at stake. Either way, Baird or her handlers felt she could gain sympathy and perhaps even absolve herself of some responsibility if Gewirtz was prepared to shoulder blame.

Her husband may have botched the matter, but that doesn't excuse Baird for not being fully involved in the decision-making in the first place. Indeed, what Baird knew and when she knew it seems entirely secondary; opting out of, or not wanting to know about, a serious legal issue concerning her family is what is damning. Equality, after all, begins in the home. Just as disconcerting was how Baird seemed to want special dispensation both as a distracted careerist on the go and as a concerned and somewhat frantic mommy. "Quite honestly, I was acting at that time really more as a mother than as someone who would be sitting here designated to be attorney general," she told the committee. How does being a mother absolve you of taking an interest in the family's financial affairs?

Baird, who apparently rose from a working class background by dint of her own talent and energy, in this case let ambition vanquish her feminist principles. Faced with the potentially greatest disaster of her career, she reflexively reached for the easiest alibi possible--her husband. This is "Stand by Your Man" updated for the nineties: stick around, ladies, and when it gets really hot your husband will take the heat. Equally implicit in all this is that dealing with money and taxes is men's work; women don't have a head for such things.

Luckily for women, Baird's testimony didn't cut it, though not because she blamed her husband. The notion of an attomey general breaking the law wasn't going to fly no matter whom she tried to blame. But the excuse has worked in the past, and it doesn't say much about our state of cultural evolution that extraordinarily successful women and a Democratic administration think they can still get away with it. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown also confessed to not paying Social Security taxes for his babysitter; how would it wash if he had tried to blame his wife?

This is not to say that pinning it on the wife hasn't been tried, but the perpetrators tend to end up lampooned in the pages of Spy magazine. That's precisely where Lawrence Smith, a Democratic congressman from Florida, found himself after he fobbed off 161 House bank overdrafts on his wife claiming that "She assumed there would be money to cover it." Another Democrat from Florida, Jim Bacchus, also got the Spy treatment when he blamed three overdrafts on his over-extended spouse: "Perhaps she was hurried. Perhaps Jamey, then just a few weeks old, began crying. Whatever the reason, Rebecca apparently mistook a 2 for a 9." Bacchus was just stating outright what Baird had implied: Asking a woman to keep the books is just asking for trouble.

Eleanor Holmes Norton tried a variation on this theme when she ran for D.C. delegate to Congress in 1990. Before running, she was a Georgetown University law professor, living the life, she claims, of an intellectual, with no interest in money or public office. Four days before the Democratic primary, though, word was anonymously leaked to reporters that she and her husband had failed to file D.C. income tax returns for seven years during the eighties. Norton claims she was as surprised as the rest of us: Her husband was responsible for the family's taxes and had assured her that their financial affairs were in order. "I love and trust my husband and realize that his lack of candor resulted from an understandable reluctance of a busy man to admit to his procrastination," Norton said in a written statement at the time. Her husband, also a lawyer and a former chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, offered several explanations for the mishap, including not being able to find the proper tax form.

The Nortons eventually paid nearly $90,000 in back taxes, penalties, and interest, and Mr. Norton held a news conference urging voters to blame him for the tax problems. But even if her husband was to blame, Norton did herself no favors by saying so. The impression left was that she had ceded financial responsibility to her husband, who had perpetrated a major tax fraud fight under her unwitting nose. She seemed duped and incapable--not the sort of person you would trust with an $800,000 budget, which is what she now oversees. Nonetheless, she won the election. Eleven days later, apparently as a result of this episode, the couple separated.

And then there is the most celebrated my-husband-did-it case of all: Geraldine Ferraro. In 1984 as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, and again in her campaign for the New York Democratic Senate nomination last year, Ferraro was besieged with questions about her husband's financial affairs and alleged Mafia ties. In 1984 it was disclosed that her husband's real estate management company, among other possible improprieties, rented space to a Mafia-run child pornography operation. Ferraro promised to have the kiddie porn firm removed immediately, but three years and $300,000 in rent elapsed before it was finally evicted.

Feminists claimed that it was unfair that she should be tarred with her husband's business dealings. But Ferraro is listed as a shareholder and as the secretary-treasurer of the company. She not only knew about these dealings, she benefitted from them personally.

Norton, Baird, and FenTaro tried to draw from two contradictory eras: the one that they grew up in and the one in which they now live. They sought and earned a prominence conceivable only in the nineties atmosphere of equal rights and opportunities, while taking refuge in the lady-of-the-house ethics of the firties. Women should not feel licensed to regress to vacuum-cleaner mores any more than men should be able to devolve into patronizing cads. Siding firmly with the gains of the nineties means laying to rest the husband excuse once and for all.
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Author:Lehrman, Karen
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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