Last week, a brilliant rocket scientist died, but she was a brilliant rocket scientist whose husband and kids said she made a great beef stroganoff.
BuzzFeed has an excellent rundown on the recent controversy over the New York Times’ obituary of Yvonne Brill, whose accomplishments as an inventor and scientist were not listed in the obituary until after it had noted that she was a wife and mother:
[T]he idea that young women need to have both a career and a husband (and children) to be truly successful hangs over them starting in adolescence. Call it the ‘Phantom Husband’—the omnipresent relationship that is so frequently presumed to define a woman and her choices, sometimes even before they meet.
This comes on the heels of a now-infamous essay that Princeton alumna (and mother of two current students) Susan Patton wrote for the university’s school newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, encouraging its female undergraduates to prioritize finding a husband while on campus.
The fact that Susan Patton frames her editorial as an open letter to all young women of Princeton—that if she had daughters, this would be the advice she’d give them—is problematic. Because, one would hope, if she’d be so eager to prioritize her daughters’ quest for smart, driven, and potentially successful husbands, you’d think she’d want her sons to find smart, driven, and potentially successful wives. In effect, you’d think she’d want all of her kids, regardless of gender, to be in a relationship that fits some mold of what we know as a “power couple.”
Power couples, as we define them, may exist on the macro level; say, the Clintons or Brangelina. Or they can be on a micro level, as in your hometown’s local husband-and-wife lawyer team who throw the best holiday parties every year and run marathons together. But in both cases it’s a common and generally complimentary epithet—a couple of equal or similar prowess and accomplishment with mutually beneficial sets of skills, relationships, and networks. And they are, for the most part, a recent invention: Before women started obtaining college degrees and entering the workforce en masse (and, of course, before gay couples embarked on the long road to mainstream social acceptance) the female half of a “power couple” typically needed to come from family money—or from a previous husband. They’re much more common than they could have been before.
But Susan Patton was giving her controversial advice to her hypothetical daughters, not her real-life sons. And therein lies the reality: In the business world, participation in a “power couple” is optional if you’re male. If you’re female, it’s implicitly pushed on you as a requirement. A woman in the professional world is, as in both Susan Patton’s editorial and Yvonne Brill’s obituary, instantly defined by her choice of husband.
This rears its head particularly high in the political world. When a US first lady takes too much of the spotlight, as with Michelle Obama presenting the best picture award at this year’s Oscars or Hillary Rodham Clinton running for US Senate with her husband still in office, there’s inevitable sexist scorn, as though she doesn’t “know her place.” But if a female politician’s husband is a comparative underachiever, the critical instinct is to wonder why he isn’t more successful. It’s considered out of the ordinary that German chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband is a chemistry professor who keeps a low profile—why isn’t he some kind of political heavy-hitter, too?—and it’s the butt of many a joke Down Under that Australian prime minister Julia Gillard’s long-term partner is a hairdresser.
The most powerful women in the world have written and spoken extensively about carefully choosing a partner and, in effect, “marrying well.” Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg has encouraged women to “make your partner a real partner,” something that admirably extends to an even split of household work but also to professional success: “households with equal earning and equal responsibility also have half the divorce rate,” she has noted. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has said: “You have to pick the right husband…[My husband] is a great guy and he has been a great support and I do not know where I would have been without him. I would say that without a doubt.”
Granted, Sandberg and Nooyi were hardly encouraging women to make sure they bagged billionaires, and in Nooyi’s case, she was speaking to a male interviewer and did mention that in his case, he’d be looking to choose the right wife. But, as has been all too extensively documented of late, with Sandberg’s Lean In and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” cover story in the Atlantic igniting a new firestorm of discussion over women’s status in the professional world, it’s usually a non-story when a successful man happens to be unmarried and child-free (unless a society magazine is compiling an “Eligible Bachelors” list). If a successful woman has neither partner nor children, the questions start flying. If she’s (relatively) young, is she on the lookout for the right man? Does she want to pull back from the business world to have children? If she’s older, and never started a family, does she regret it?
Call it salt in a wound, but the thinking that drove Susan Patton to author her letter to the Daily Princetonian is very provocative: Being married isn’t enough for high-achieving women. Being married to a supportive husband isn’t enough, either. He’s got to be just as successful, or even more so, than his female spouse.
Frankly, it’d be great if there were some powerful women out there who were vocal about not being in power couples. As much as it’s an aspirational term of supposed spousal equality, the reality is that it’s weighted with gender bias. It’d be great if there were a few C-level women who said that career and close friendships outweighed the need to have a partner and that they really, truly had no regrets. Or, even better, if there were a few who are proud to have loving, supportive partners who work part time or freelance in order to stay home with the kids (or the dogs, or both). Would it really be that radical for a female billionaire to say what a great cook her husband is?
Follow Caroline McCarthy on Twitter @caro. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from Quartz