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SAIS Review 20.2 (2000) 159-166
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Front Men and Back Women
Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant, by Dusko Doder & Louise Branson. New York: The Free Press, 1999. 304 pp. $25.
America's Boy: A Century of Colonialism in the Philippines, by James Hamilton-Paterson. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. 462 pp. $30.
Mandela: The Authorized Biography, by Anthony Sampson. New York: Knopf, 1999. 672 pp. $30.
On April 7, 2000, the New York Times printed a thirty-six paragraph-long obituary of Tunisia's former president, Habib Bourguiba. While it described Bourguiba as a leader who "did much to enhance women's rights in Tunisia," it is not until the twenty-first paragraph that we learn he had a first wife, a Frenchwoman, whom he divorced in 1961. In that same year, we are finally informed in the second to last paragraph, he married his second wife, Wassila ben Ammar, "a Tunisian from a prominent family" and someone who "came to be seen as a power within the presidency." But how much of a power? And with what consequence? How are we to know?
Often we hear about husbands and wives who act as each other's political helpmates. The most flamboyant among these power couples figure in modern morality tales, even musicals. Mention one prominent pair, like Juan and Eva Peron, and others spring to mind: the Ceaucescus, the Marcoses, the Milosevices. What sets couples like these apart from others--Mr. and Mrs. John Major, say--are the wives, women who openly, even brazenly, engage in politics, [End Page 159] sometimes to help their husbands, sometimes to hurt them. We might well wonder whether this should be allowed. The quick, rhetorical retort: who, if not their husbands, can stop them?
Three recent biographies-Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant, America's Boy: A Century of Colonialism in the Philippines, and Mandela: The Authorized Biography-should raise these as well as other questions about relations between leaders and the women they have wed, a topic that has thus far not received the attention it deserves. Indeed, scholars allude to marital power behind the throne more often than they examine the throne as a prop that is used by spouses bent on wielding power themselves. The biographies reviewed here are about leaders whose wives came to shrewdly cultivate their own sphere of power.
While leaders like Bourguiba may have married women because of their political connections, these three men did not. Rather, whatever networks Mira Milosevic, Imelda Marcos, and Winnie Mandela came to martial, these were networks they fashioned themselves. This suggests that these wives (if not their husbands) have some predilections in common. It could be their willingness to profit from their positions, or it could be the uses to which they put their gender, never mind their position, as each amassed power not by turning to other women but by using men. This, of course, suggests that their approach is more feminine than feminist.
Interestingly, only one of these three women is still married to her husband, who himself remains a head of state. One might think this would yield a surfeit of information. In Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant, however, we learn next to nothing about the content of the Milosevices' relationship beyond the fact that, on occasion, Mira Milosevic has seemed more engrossed with preserving her husband's position in power than he has. Journalists Dusko Doder and Louise Branson seem unable to penetrate beneath the surface facts. When they do, it is only to delve into pyschological speculation. Either Slobodan Milsoevic is "playing out a syndrome known as 'suicide by cop'" (which could explain his having played chicken with NATO over Kosovo) or, according to the nameless pyschologists they cite, "he lives in a narcissistic, self-centered place where he is the sun and everything revolves around him."
One can make the easy leap and assume this reputed narcissism stems from his childhood. Not uncoincidentally, perhaps, he is married to a woman whose background is thought to have scarred...