What happens to “the other woman?”
In recent decades, many male political powerhouses have been rocked by extramarital affairs gone public.
Experts point out that frequently the “other woman” is blamed for wreaking havoc, marked with a red letter, while the men in many cases survive. Some credit gender bias and politicians’ access to public relations experts.
The most recent collapse of power was seen with the resignation of CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus. He stepped down following the discovery of an affair with his biographer and reserve Army officer Paula Broadwell, according to several U.S. officials with knowledge of the situation.
“While pundits debated the future of Gen. David Petraeus, few concerned themselves with the fate of Broadwell,” wrote a blogger in The Washington Post’s The Reliable Source this week, highlighting the issue of “the other woman” amidst political scandals.
“In American political sex scandals, the ‘other woman’ rarely ever fares well,” College of Charleston associate professor Kendra Stewart said.
Stewart’s research has focused on women in politics, and she is co-editor of the book “The Practice of Government Public Relations.” According to Stewart, our society is more comfortable placing blame on the woman who participated in the affair rather than the married man.
Stewart pointed to a case close to home — the allegations made by two men in 2010 who claimed to have had affairs with Gov. Nikki Haley — as evidence that there are still different standards for the sexes.
“Although the claims were never proven, neither of these men seemed to be concerned over ruining their careers or professional reputations by making such a claim,” Stewart said.
Women in many national scandals are labeled “homewrecker” and “mistress,” terms holding negative connotations without masculine counterparts, according to Stewart.
“In most cases, we are comfortable holding the woman more accountable because she should know better, while the man is really just a victim of his ego and sex drive,” she said. “There are many examples of cheating men who wind up with successful careers and forgiving spouses; however, the ‘other woman’ is rarely as lucky.”
The Washington Post blogger hailed Bill Clinton as a perfect example of this since he “has never been more popular” and Monica Lewinsky, “despite a degree from the London School of Economics, has never managed to hold down a job.”
There are exceptions to every rule. Elizabeth Boineau, who has worked in crisis communications and owns a Charleston public relations firm, pointed to former S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford.
After announcing his affair with Maria Chapur, Sanford’s political career took a nosedive, but the two remained together and recently became engaged. Chapur was more shielded than the other women because she lived outside the United States, according to Boineau.
“The obscurity helped her,” Boineau said.
Stewart agreed. “Chapur has the advantage of being from another country where her affair with our former governor is probably not nearly as interesting as it is here.”
Even despite the blow to Sanford’s political career, on election night last week, the former governor was offering political commentary on Fox News, according to Boineau, who said it validated his survival.
As one who has steered the ship for those who have found themselves in the middle of a public relations storm, Boineau said access to crisis communications advice is key and a reason “the other woman” is usually buried in the media.
“It’s probably first and foremost a matter of not being well-informed or guided in respect to handling a crisis,” she said. “Secondly, I do believe gender does play a role in that our society forgives the male and assigns them this aura that they are supposed to be ‘bad boys.’ ”
According to Boineau, Petraeus followed many of the rules in handling a scandal in the public realm: he acknowledged the problem, accepted responsibility as appropriate, and acknowledged those who were hurt or injured.
“In this case, the world has interest. It does demonstrate weakness to him as a leader, but he acknowledged it,” she said.
It’s yet to be seen whether Petraeus will bounce back, but according to Boineau, one thing is for sure: Broadwell’s silence on the matter leaves the public with one dangerous thing: speculation.
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.