“I didn’t tuck ‘em in”: The Trouble with the Dutiful Wife Syndrome

“I didn’t tuck ‘em in”: The Trouble with the Dutiful Wife Syndrome

Posted by Susanne Scholz on Jun 22, 2012

What is it with those wives who stand up for their husbands with sexual troubles?  

Most recently, we read about Dottie Sandusky, the wife of the former Penn State assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky.  As we all know, her husband had been battling a law suit from eight men accusing him of sexually abusing and molesting them as boys, including in the married couple’s house and basement. 

On June 19, 2012, Ms. Sandusky was called to the witness stand, and all eyes were on her, as she has been “something of a mystery figure.”  The couple has been married for more than four decades and adopted six children when they could not have children of their own.  They also had taken in foster children and hosted a stream of visiting boys from Second Mile, the non-profit organization Ms. Sandusky’s husband had founded in 1977.  Theirs had been a home of children, mostly boys, but now the problematic truth about some of the visits has been coming out.

The phenomenon of wives standing up in defense of their husbands is not new.  In fact, I wonder if it will ever disappear. 

We have seen Ms. Spitzer standing by her man in 2008 when he was exposed of having had sex with expensive prostitutes.

More recently, Anne Sinclair, the wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, stood by her man when in early 2011 he was accused of raping a hotel maid in New York.  But in August 2011, the case against him was dismissed, and so perhaps Ms. Sinclair felt justified after the dismissal.  Yet in late March 2012, he was charged with “aggravated pimping” for his participation in a prostitution ring.  In early May 2012, he faced additional investigations for alleged sexual misconduct during a hotel stay in Washington, D.C., in 2010.  Meanwhile, in mid-May 2012, he filed a law suit against the New York maid.  In this particular case, stories abound about this husband’s sexual activities, misconduct, and potentially criminal behavior, but so far no further word from the wife.  She is silent, but she also has not yet filed for divorce. 

  The list of wives standing by their man goes on and on, and we don’t need to rehash the familiar cases.   We know of Hillary Clinton’s ordeals with her husband’s play with cigars and Monica in the Oval Office in the late 1990s

  Much earlier, Simone de Beauvoir selected women students for her partner, Jean-Paul Sartre. 

There are certainly many more wives, but the point is not to present an exhaustive list.  The point is to raise the question why these wives do what they do—standing by their man when he is accused or exposed of sexually inappropriate or even sexually criminal behavior.  

  Recently, some wives refused to stand by their man when he was exposed of a sex scandal, adultery, or some other issue related to his sexual urges.   One of them is Ms. Sanford, the wife of the cheating governor of North Carolina.  In December 2009, she filed for divorce, six months after her husband admitted to an Argentinian girlfriend. 

Also Maria Shriver whose husband and the then-governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, admitted to being the father of a child born by a former house-keeper filed for divorce shortly after the scandal was made public in May 2011. 

And in June 2011 Huma Abedin, the wife of New York’s Democrat Anthony D. Weiner who was found online exposing himself in photos, did not comment or show up for any of her husband’s public appearances when he tried to explain his behavior.

So things may be changing here and there, but currently we are witnessing again how one wife defends her husband accused of sexually attacking boys under his care and tutelage.  In a nutshell, many women continue to be confronted with their husbands’ sexually unpredictable practices, whether in consensual affairs or in acts of prostitution or in criminal sexual behavior. 

Again and again, some women stand by their man who sometimes pays the bills and usually brings prestige, status, and the world to her.  In return, these women let go of their sense of self-respect and moral integrity.  They support their man even when it gets more and more difficult because he really did wrong.  And so Ms. Sandusky, with clinched fist and tight lips, defends her husband.  She tells the world that she did not see what he is accused of.  She did not see him sexually molesting and abusing young boys anywhere, no less in the couple’s home and basement.

But her repressed anger about the harm done by the husband comes out in a rather hostile comment.  She did not tuck them in, she explains.  While she looked away, she is sure he took care of the boys although eight grown man attest to the opposite. 

In short, she is complicit in the sexual abuse of the boys, and so we cannot feel sympathy for her.  She does not face up to the truth of her life, namely that she is married to a man who does not love her but uses her as a cover-up for his crimes.  Enabling her husband, she ignores the men speaking out against him.  It is a sad spectacle. 

It is also impossible to imagine that so many men would so consistently deny their integrity and self-respect in this way. 

This is the power of patriarchy and androcentrism that keeps women defending their husbands of sexually questionable and criminal behaviors, even when other women have filed for divorce after their husbands acknowledged sexual infidelities and transgressions.

The emotional baggage of second-class citizenship continues to be very deep for many women.  And many religions continuously contribute to the internal sense of alienation in many women.  I want to believe that things would be different if preachers and teachers of the numerous androcentrically interpreted religions had long deconstructed and rejected sexism interlocked with all of the other forms of socio-political and economic oppression. Instead, I am pretty certain that Ms. Sandusky has never heard of feminist theologies in her life.

Her husband was convicted of sexually abusing young boys on June 22, 2012.  Since he will probably spend the rest of his life behind bars, she will have plenty of time to reflect on her complicity that enabled her husband to commit these crimes for decades.  


Linda Baumheckel's picture

Your point is well taken and stated. I would like to add to the conversation that I believe Ms. Sandusky was also well groomed and manipulated into her position as enabler by the perpetrator as having been in the incubator of the crime scene for decades. As I reflect it is like a battered wife syndrome where sense of self, self esteem and integrity are lost in the chaos. Yet I am also encouraged by women of high profile who have had the presence of self to do the appropriate thing with their public decisions to cease their relationships. All in all I am hopeful that the profile of this case will create more conversation and reflection on everyone's culpability when it comes to moral integrity.

Isabel Docampo's picture

Finally, someone who dares to confront modern day women with our complicity with sexism and patriarchal society in the 21st century. As Christian feminists, we must ask ourselves why the pulpit occupied by so many women remains silent on the issue of sexism and sexual abuse. Thank you Dr. Scholz for exposing this fault line.

Liz Bounds's picture

Wonderful piece Suzanne--plain speaking and truthful naming!

Jann Aldredge-Clanton's picture

Thank you, Dr. Scholz, for this powerful article! And thank you, Dr. Docampo, for your incisive comment. I heartily agree. I pray that women and men in pulpits and classrooms will not continue to remain silent on sexism, patriarchy, sexual abuse, and all the accompanying oppression. Sophia Wisdom calls us to speak out and change our sexist culture and churches.

Mary Greiner's picture

Until we break the cycle of girls being raised by fathers who have poor sexual boundaries, I fear that feminist theology will help only those women who pursue recovery from their childhood perception of their place in the world.

POL's picture

There must be a link to the language used by our culture and culture forming churches, which excludes the use of any feminine sacred language in services Sunday after Sunday. Churches in almost every denomination have been in the media where members have been abused by clergy, and still the dominate male language for the sacred continues and many women support the abuser even when convicted, in some cases. Maybe it is a jump to wonder if there might be links between this kind of cultural brain washing and language being used weekly from the pulpits.

Jann Aldredge-Clanton's picture

Thank you for pointing out the link between sexual abuse/sexism and the worship language in congregations. As long as the Divine is represented exclusively in male names, metaphors, and images, then men will be given greater value than women. Including the Divine Feminine gives sacred value to women and girls.

Melanie's picture

Great essay; you bring up some important points, and it does indeed seem troublesome when women stand by their men, thereby choosing complicity over other options. (one request: for those sensitive to the language of adoption, please choose another phrase than the couple could not have children of their own. I claim my adopted children as my own, even though they were not born to me. Thanks.)

Suzanne's picture

One cannot possibly lump the wives of men who commit adultery with other adults in the same catagory as the wife of a man who systematically lured children into their home to abuse and rape them. Sandusky was not guilty of sexual transgressions; he is a predatory monster. How can you cast Mrs. Spitzer, Mrs. Clinton or Maria Shriver in such a poor light? These women were the victims of their husband's transgressions. In Mrs. Sandusky's case, the victims were children, in her home, whose safety was her responsibility. This article's entire premise is flawed.

Dr. Robinson's picture

Including De Beauvoir in your article conflates consensual non-monogamy with sexual misconduct and reinforces compulsory monogamy.