Behind every man: Media construction of wives at the center of political sex scandals

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communications


Carol M. Liebler

Second Advisor

Dennis Kinsev

Third Advisor

Kristi Andersen


Gender, Media coverage, Political wives, Politics, Scandal, Sex scandals, Media

Subject Categories

Mass Communication


The U.S. media has paid significant attention to the sexual transgressions of male politicians, often with front-page and top-of-the-hour news coverage. Today's political sex scandals in America are stories of powerful men who have been exposed: caught engaging in illicit behavior in private, which they never intended to be made public. This "reveal" - publicized by media outlets - results in tarnished reputations that can pose a temporary or permanent effect to the transgressor. Yet behind many scandalized politicians, accused of sexual liaisons outside of the marriage, there is a woman, his wife. She also finds herself under the harsh glare of the media spotlight even though she did not engage in illicit activity. Print reports, Twitter feeds, radio spots, news broadcasts and blogs all analyze her public response to her husband's private misdeeds. This dissertation takes a mixed-methods approach to investigate how the media construct political wives whose husbands have been tarnished by sexual scandal. At the core of this investigation is the analysis of the wife's presence - or absence - from a key media event: The press conference where the politician acknowledges, spins or denies extramarital sexual activity.

The examples in the past few years of married, political elites behaving badly are plentiful. These examples are former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey (2004); former Idaho Senator Larry Craig (2007); Louisiana Senator David Vitter (2007); former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (2008); former U.S. Representative Tim Mahoney (2008); former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (2009); Nevada senator John Ensign (2009). This study employs a feminist critical theory lens to media coverage of these scandal events. Methodology includes textual analysis and content analysis of printed text, photographs and televised press conferences as covered in the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and the politician's hometown papers. Video clips of each politician's press conference are taken from YouTube. Print articles are obtained via microfilm.

By focusing on a cluster of scandals within a specific time period we can begin to see emerging patterns in media coverage of these events, as well as social expectations of women whose husbands have been scandalized. Ultimately this analysis can further our understanding of recurring cultural messages of "wifeness," my term for acts associated with being and performing "Wife." My conclusions stem from previous literature on the two-person, single career marriage. As this study shows, when a woman publicly performs "wifeness," her often silent presence at the podium alongside her husband can shame him, since she represents the public evidence of his private transgressions. However, she also channels the possibility of forgiveness. Ultimately, findings suggest that the news media, while vocally critical of the wife's presence at the press conference, continue to re(produce) gender stereotypes surrounding wifeness. Additionally, the experiences of political wives are co-opted by a public who fears their position, and their faces become symbolic of betrayed wives everywhere.


Surface provides description only. Full text is available to ProQuest subscribers. Ask your Librarian for assistance.