When Did World Leaders Start Using Their Wives As Props?
A brief history of Presidential hand-holding
It is a truth universally unacknowledged that the only type of men you see clutching their wives’ hands on their way to and from a business meeting are politicians. Everyone else manages to leave their wives at home — or, ya know, at their own business meetings.
We’ve all seen the infamous footage of Melania swatting away her husband’s hand, although more often than not she doesn’t, but the question is: why does he expect her to hold it in the first place? It is not a common sight in everyday life for middle-aged couples to hold hands when getting on and off a plane, for example — yet world leaders and their wives invariably seem to do it.
The Trumps are hardly alone in this. Jenny Morrison paraded around with Scott on his recent visit to the US, no doubt trailing behind him as he conducted his very important business of inspecting a Chicago McDonalds.
At this year’s (and every) G7, we were treated to the spectacle of the world leaders’ wives enjoying their scheduled outings while their husbands negotiated the future of the planet. The sight of ladies having no apparent function other than doing organised lady-things so inspired European Council President Donald Tusk with awe that he posted an image (of their backs) on his Instagram account declaring them “the light side of the Force.” It seems that even in 2019, female stereotypes are alive and well.
Note that Mr Merkel is never present among the G7 spouses. In fact, female world leaders are far less likely to engage in public hand-holding with their husbands and partners — because using men as props implies weakness on the woman’s part. But for men to use their wives as props somehow conveys the opposite.
So when did this public display of domesticity actually begin? That is the question I sought to answer a few evenings ago, along with the unlikely combination of my mother and brother-in-law. Our hypothesis was that presidential hand-holding rose to prominence with the advent of television. A cursory Google search of the Kennedys, Reagans and Carters clutching their wives while doing Presidential things seemed to prove us correct.
But then we were curious about the days before cheap travel and glossy magazines. Did Franklin Roosevelt gad about Depression-era America with Eleanor in tow? Google suggests not (“But they had marriage problems,” my Mum declared, scrolling through Wikipedia — as though perhaps the Trumps, Kennedys and Clintons didn’t).
While posed family portraits were definitely a thing, wives weren’t routinely trotted out for photos when the menfolk were deciding the fate of the world. Perhaps Mrs Chamberlain and Ms Braun were off being given a sightseeing tour of Godesberg while their respective partners started World War 2, and Mrs Stalin, Mrs Churchill and Mrs Truman were having an organised ladies’ day in Potsdam while their husbands ended it. But there are no photos of them.
However, the internet does confirm that Edith Wilson went to Europe with her husband Woodrow while he signed the Treaty of Versailles. Was Woodrow Wilson’s greatest legacy creating the first Presidential wife-prop? (Well, that and the United Nations.)
Further thoroughly-scientific research indicated that world leaders hold hands with their spouses far more than royals (protocol and all that) although (controversially!) Harry and Meghan hold hands more than William and Catherine. Perhaps more surprising is my Mum’s discovery via Google Images that Charles seemed to hold hands more often with Diana than with Camilla. She did also point out that in royal couples, neither of them serve any actual function so basically they’re all props. (No, my family are not monarchists.)
By now it was 11pm and we were clearly well and truly down a rabbit hole. In fact, we’d all spiralled separately into our personal internet vortexes. My brother-in-law had started googling coins and my Mum was searching for evidence that Prince Charles had always been, in her words, “a bit odd ” (Siri, tell me weird things that Prince Charles has said or done).
The precise origins of the Presidential hand-holding remained largely unresolved — so if you can enlighten me, please do leave a comment.
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