Goodbye to the era of the professional spouse

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Melania Trump appears to be sitting out Donald Trump’s bid for presidential re-election this year. In fact, since leaving the White House the former first lady has largely retreated from public view. It feels, writes the Washington Post, as if she’s hiding. 

Who wouldn’t want to hide? The role of professional spouse is a deeply unappealing one. It seems to have been beamed in from another era — judged on interior decoration, charitable lunches and photo opportunities. If Melania did not enjoy life as first lady, and to all appearances she did not, why would she relish the chance to repeat it?

There are not many jobs left in which spouses are expected to play an important yet ill-defined and uncompensated role in their partner’s career. Royalty and politics are the most visible. But in business too, the demands of some executive positions can blur the boundaries between personal and professional life. That can leave partners working as quasi-entertainment directors and hosts for a company that does not employ them. 

Some relish the spotlight. See Lauren Sánchez promoting fiancé Jeff Bezos’s rocket company while being photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue. Others carry out their duties under significantly more duress. Barbara Amiel’s memoir of her life with disgraced financier Conrad Black describes the job of throwing parties for his illustrious contacts as both unpleasant and unasked for. The events were “harrowing occasions [that] involved several hundred people trooping through our house to meet, greet and pass judgment on our taste or lack thereof”. 

There is no formal training for this sort of life or the scrutiny that comes with it. A US consulting firm, RHR International, once suggested that anyone married to a CEO might like to take the Meyers-Briggs personality test as preparation. But it’s not clear how knowing whether you’re an INFJ or ESTP helps. Colette Young, wife of former Dr Pepper Snapple chief executive Larry Young, took a more practical approach. In 2005 she set up a business called ExecuMate that offered coaching for executive spouses. Advice included having a positive attitude about relocation. 

As if that’s not enough, professional spouses are also supposed to have an improving effect on their partners. A popular 2012 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research claimed that unmarried CEOs made more aggressive choices and worked at companies with more volatile stock prices than their married peers.

The research feeds into an idea of marital serenity aiding professional life that politics is also fond of calling on. Think of Sarah Brown, whose warmth was employed by the British Labour party to offset prime minister Gordon Brown’s awkwardness. Or Michelle Obama, whose likeability helped to secure votes for husband Barack. The job is to be mother, wife and helpmate for the great man, as the journalist Irin Carmon once wrote of Ann Romney, wife of US presidential candidate Mitt. The husband’s side of the bargain is to talk about how much they admire their wives. This sounds like thin reward for a difficult job. In two-career households, it can be even more fraught. 

Husbands of female politicians or CEOs do not tend not to be regarded as a domestic asset in quite the same way. Public interest in US vice-president Kamala Harris’s ‘Second Gentleman’ husband has been muted, for example. Former German chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband Joachim Sauer, a professor of theoretical chemistry, rarely appeared in public with his wife. 

But female partners who try to opt out can find themselves under pressure. Last year, Tatler magazine republished a glowing profile of Lady Victoria Starmer, wife of Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer. While it noted approvingly her “glossy brunette hair” and “polished silhouettes” it also pointed out that a number of Labour MPs had never met her. To me, the implication is clear: she could be a help to her husband’s prime ministerial campaign if only she would step forward. 

Melania Trump and Victoria Starmer’s reluctance to play big, public-facing parts in their respective husbands’ political campaigns could help to change expectations in society more broadly. So will demographics. The age at which people get married is rising, as is the number who remain single. Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen is not married. Nor is Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte. In India, prime minister Narendra Modi’s single status is portrayed by supporters as proof of his devotion to the country. In the end it could be singletons, not wives, who deal the final blow to the antiquated role of professional spouse.

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