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Anthony Weiner, Huma Abedin, and the Gender of Power

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August 29, 2016


The latest news on the Huma Abedin-Anthony Weiner front is that she has announced her separation from him. This comes after the New York Post revealed that he has continued his sexting ways, even sending out a snap of his clothed but visibly erect penis with his infant son lying next to him.


The hard part -- really, no pun intended -- of thinking through "sex scandals" like those of Anthony Weiner and Bill Clinton is being sufficiently critical of men like them without resorting to the usual "infidelity is a sin" or "sexting is a disease" narratives.  


It's also hard to fully consider how their spouses have stood by them for so long in order to finally make their own forays into politics without also buying into narratives about, well, women and power.  But it's worth noting that the whole "stand by your man" crap is just that, crap.  Hillary Rodham Clinton is more than a mentor to Huma Abedin, she has been a model for her.  But what worked for Clinton has simply not worked for Abedin, at all.


In Clinton’s case, there’s sufficient evidence that hers is a complicated political marriage but that it also rested on a belief that she would, in return for staying at her husband’s side, eventually be given her time in the sun.  That gamble is more likely than not to pay off for her in November.  

But it’s not a gamble that paid off for her mentee, and Huma Abedin appears to be finally cutting her losses and moving on (unless the separation fails to turn into a divorce).  


It’s difficult to write about two women in such terms without being derided as an anti-feminist.  But what has been lacking in the combined mainstream appraisal of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Huma Abedin has been a more thorough consideration of women and power.  In the rush to insist that Clinton’s aim at the presidency is some kind of feminist triumph, the mainstream argument has been   that women everywhere are obliged to vote for her because she is a woman.  Those of us who have consistently pointed out the various and very deep problems with her history as a politician, as someone who actually set disastrous policy into action — as in an entire anthology and an entire book — have been dismissed as Trump-lovers and sexists. But surely, if we are enlightened enough to elect a woman president (long after several other countries have elected female leaders), we can finally come to think about her as a politician, not just as a woman.  And with political analysis comes an analysis of power, even and especially when that power is acquired through the gendered formations of sex and the family.


Huma Abedin clearly has political aspirations or, at least, had political aspirations for her husband — it’s unlikely that someone with her background and intellectual force is resigned to hold her mentor’s handbags and arrange her schedules for the rest of her life.  But in several pieces asking why she stays, the responses have tended to shy away from placing her desire for power at the centre of the discussion.

Is it so unlikely that Abedin has inherited her arrogance about her position from her mentor, with whom she has had a filial relationship (Clinton has gone or record to refer to her as her other daughter)?  Both the Clintons have continually expressed not contrition but surprise that their various improprieties, including the email scandal and the sauntering up to Loretta Lynch, to name only two in a vast array of such, should even be considered such.  Is it unlikely that Abedin thought she and Weiner were similarly immune from criticism?  That she genuinely thought they would eventually weather this storm after sufficient time had elapsed, that his several public acts of contrition would eventually allow him to re-enter public office?  

But this brings us to that difficulty I pointed to above — how to resolve what, exactly, the Abedin-Weiners have done wrong.  Or, more precisely, what Weiner did that required him to leave politics.  As some like to point out, sex and infidelity are not the focus in countries like France.  


I’m not interested in the propriety or lack thereof in what Weiner did.  We have, in the United States, a public culture that demands fidelity from politicians despite every bit of evidence that many people are simply not wired for monogamy, where even sexting is now considered an actual sexual act (which has terrible consequences in the realm of sex offender laws).  We have to consider that Weiner is in part a victim of sorts despite no evidence of him having actually, you know, had sex with anyone.  Or, to be French about it, that even physical infidelity would not make him an unfit politician.


I’m interested, rather, in the matter of Huma Abedin whose life story, if it had gone the way she wanted, could have been a fascinating one in the political landscape of this country.  She’s an observant Muslim with a family based in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and thus a background that makes it nearly impossible to gain a lot of political leverage quickly. Yet, Abedin possesses enough cultural and political capital to have appeared in Vogue several times, including a piece about her then-upcoming marriage to Weiner (where she was photographed in a gown designed for her by Oscar de la Renta)  More recently, Vogue wrote about her yet her again, describing her as powerful, glamorous, and ubiquitous,” in a story clearly marked as her return to the political forefront, a scene from which she had temporarily retired. Trust me, no one gets into Vogue by accident.


Political writers are apt to be contemptuous of entities like Vogue, but if you don’t understand the power of that magazine and its editor, you don’t get get how it — along with high fashion — serves as a platform for staging political careers.  Consider, for instance, Chelsea Clinton, today firmly ensconced as a power player.  Her career as a social luminary is what enabled her — an extremely awkward woman with the charisma of a rock in the middle of a pavement, annoying yet there — to make tentative steps towards becoming  something else, a political player.  If you want to see the first signs that Chelsea Clinton was aiming to be a somebody, you need look no further than the first brief mentions of her appearances at fashion shows in Vogue, being mentored by none other than Donatella Versace and eventually  wearing that designer’s clothes. It’s not politics that dictates fashion. There’s a stratosphere in which fashion actually determines politics and political careers.  


To return to Abedin: Her gamble that Weiner would grant her a political career appears to not have worked in her favour, and she’s faced with being permanently tied to a woman whose life she had hoped to emulate.  What’s fascinating about all this is that what worked for Clinton would probably never have worked for Abedin.  The Weiner “scandal” is as potent and visceral as it is for everyday viewers and readers because there’s evidence of the sort as ubiquitous and humdrum as the images and texts we send to each other constantly, twenty-four hours a day, every day.  That evidence appears as instantly as Weiner’s sexts appeared on his virtual lovers’ phones.  Consider how different — and how quickly resolved — matters would have been if there existed similar texts and images between Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton.  Instead, in their case, there were literally years of legal wrangling to gain access to taped conversations and more.  Those kinds of serpentine delays allowed the Clintons to regroup, to paint Lewinsky as, in essence a lying, unstable woman and to emerge from it all even better off than ever (they are both multi millionaires while Lewinsky, though not destitute, finds it difficult to get and keep a steady job).  

It’s not improper to consider that Hillary Clinton was furious not that Clinton had stepped out on her (his track record was clear for years prior) but that he had been found out, that she stayed in her marriage knowing that a divorce would ruin her chances to be president.  It’s also not improper to think that Abedin is not so much a complicated woman trying to hold her family together as much as she has been single-minded in achieving a similar kind of political power.  It’s not improper or sexist to argue that both women have made huge concessions to their husbands in the hope of finally getting their own careers on track.  To point out that two such high-placed women in the world’s most powerful country had to negotiate their political lives through those of their husbands is not sexist: It simply points to the incredible sexism that still undergirds our political structure.


Ultimately, both women wanted to be politically relevant. That’s not a bad thing in itself: Men do it all the time, and we praise them for it.  It’s time to think about Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin not simply as women who stood by their men, but as women who embarked, one more successfully than the other, on fairly uncomplicated quests for power.  That, ultimately, is much less sexist than to assume that they, unlike their male counterparts, are in public life, nun-like,  in order to serve some higher calling.


See also: "On Power Couples."


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