Thank You, Elizabeth
How Elizabeth Edwards rewrote the script for political wives like me.
Also in Slate: Meghan O'Rourke discusses what Elizabeth Edwards taught us about illness and grief. View a slide show of photographs of Elizabeth Edwards, 1949-2010.
The first time I met Elizabeth, I stood in a doorway in downtown Cleveland and found myself staring at her backside.
She was bent at the waist, her head upside down as she brushed her hair—bottom to top, bottom to top—trying to fluff it up, just as I had done with my own hair a half-hour earlier at home.
She stood up, saw me watching her, and laughed.
"I don't know why I bother," she said, her face flushed from leaning over. "Guess we never stop trying."
It was March 26, 2007, just four days after she and her husband, then a Democratic presidential candidate, had told the world her cancer had returned and that this time, it was incurable. She greeted a sold-out crowd that day, including many women in wigs and head scarves who were looking for a hope that had nothing to do with a political campaign, and a herd of national journalists who were suddenly very interested in a long-scheduled speech at the City Club of Cleveland.
We talked a bit, and Elizabeth mentioned my second book, … and His Lovely Wife, which was about life on the campaign trail during my husband Sherrod Brown's 2006 race for the Senate.
"I love the title," she said.
I thanked her and smiled sheepishly. "I read your book," I said. "You're a lot nicer than I am."
"Only in the book, honey," she said, winking. "Only in the book."
A lot of women admired Elizabeth because she was special but never acted like she knew it. She was smart and funny, wickedly good at word games, and full of opinions she felt free to share. She was wide-eyed, pretty, with a real smile and a Southern accent that was softer than a breeze.
She was many things before she was a candidate's wife. She grew up in a military family and was a world traveler by the time she graduated from high school. She majored in English in college, where she developed a lifelong affection for the work of Henry James. She was one of only 20 women in a class of 200 at the University of North Carolina's law school, where she met the man she would marry. She was an accomplished lawyer and mother to Cate and Wade, all long before most of us had ever heard her name.
Elizabeth could so easily have lost herself in the traditional world of the "political wife," as if she were married not to John but to his profession. We all know that stereotype: a perfectly coifed beacon to convention who holds her place and her tongue, and smiles on cue. Elizabeth would have none of that. You don't have to be a politician's wife, as I am, to understand how Elizabeth helped redefine the brand, but if you aremarried to an elected official, your gratitude runs particularly deep.
Connie Schultz is a columnist for the Plain Dealer, an essayist for Parade magazine, and the author of … and His Lovely Wife.
Photograph of Elizabeth Edwards by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.