Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's marriage history has raised hackles among some conservatives who wonder why "feminists" weren't harder on Democrats who had extramarital affairs. Attacking Gingrich while supporting former President Bill Clinton is just hypocritical, the argument goes.
There is indeed hypocrisy here. But it's not coming from the feminists. And there is also some appalling sexism, but it's not coming predominantly from Gingrich and has little to do with his behavior as a husband.
Gingrich's marriages are truly none of anyone's business, and revisiting the issue—even with the willing participation of one of his ex-wives—may do little more than bring more pain and attention to people who already have undergone a good deal of emotional turmoil. Infidelities happen, and men are hardly the only sex committing adultery.
But if a public official gets on his or her high horse and castigates another elected official for extramarital sexual activity (as Gingrich did with Clinton), the privacy argument is out. That is pure hypocrisy and a conflict Gingrich should have anticipated, given that he was actually conducting his affair with his now-wife while the Clinton impeachment episode was occurring.
And more offensive is the very suggestion that so-called "feminists" (a term critics use as a code word for a caricature of bitter, angry, man-hating women) should care at all whether another woman's husband is having an affair. There is not hypocrisy here between female voters' response to Clinton's infidelity vs. those of others, because it's not a feminist issue. There's nothing inherently anti-female about an "open marriage," as Gingrich's second wife said the former speaker requested (although there is a credibility issue here, since the time to ask for an open marriage is before the marriage happens, not after the affair starts). Men and women alike may find Gingrich's behavior offensive, but it is far more offensive to suggest that 21st century women care primarily about catching and keeping a man, so much so that they would punish a male candidate for having an affair. It's appalling that we have had three female secretaries of state (in both Democratic and Republican administrations), a very serious female candidate for president, and two female vice presidential nominees, and yet the common assumption is that women are going to rise up in indignant horror over some cheatin' man. Really, most of us are just trying to make sure we get paid the same as the man in our office doing the same job. Or we're trying to succeed at work without having to choose between parenthood and a job. Feminism is about choices and equal opportunity. It's not about all of us gals sitting around and complaining about the cad who done one of our sisters wrong.
There are some side issues to Gingrich's behavior in his marriages, but they aren't strictly about infidelity. His post-affair request for an "open marriage," in which he told his wife (according to Marianne Gingrich) that she couldn't have him all to herself, suggests that he wanted more of a harem than a marriage with loose rules about sex. And if Gingrich did, as a friend of the former speaker told CNN, feel his first wife wasn't "young enough or pretty enough" to be first lady, that reflects an offensive view of women as decoration and support for his own ambitions. Marital fidelity is an honorable goal, and one many candidates indeed achieve. But it doesn't make those candidates strong on women's issues.