Back in February I wrote an article about our first Second Gentleman, Doug Emhoff, husband of VP Kamala Harris. I spoke about past Second Ladies and how they occupied a usually forgettable role which has only sparked interest recently because now for the first time in US history the Vice President’s spouse is a man.
Now, however, I want to talk about a Second Lady from the past.
I want to talk about Marilyn Quayle.
I researched Second Ladies while writing my short Emhoff essay and Marilyn Quayle stood out from all the others. Second Lady Quayle was viewed unsympathetically by the mainstream press back in the early nineties and according to news articles at the time, the feeling was mutual. One Chicago Tribune article from 1990 noted that Second Lady Quayle “Perhaps out of self-preservation, or just plain outrage,” tended to treat most reporters “as if they had just slithered out from under a rock.”
Second Lady Quayle also got grief for her looks, specifically her trademark black Mary Tyler Moore-style flip that framed her thin, severe face. During her fortieth birthday party, however, she turned the mockery into an asset. Her friends threw her a “Long Live The Flip Fan Club” birthday bash while wearing wigs similar to her flip. They sang an “Ode to the Flip” and Second Lady Quayle herself punned “Read my flips.” (That was funny back in 1989, trust me).
More intriguingly Marilyn Quayle was seen by most of the Washington DC set as the most dominant part of the Quayle pair. Her husband, Vice President Dan Quayle, was widely seen as a dumb handsome himbo with a boyish personality. This was an image with which Marilyn Quayle struggled. On the one hand, the Second Lady was a lawyer and a strong woman who was eager to prove herself as a dynamic new generation of political spouse who have, in her own words, a “professional role as opposed to kind of backdoor.” On the other hand, Marilyn Quayle hated seeing how the press emasculated her husband by suggesting that she held the reins in the marriage. Marilyn Quayle occupied that awkward, in-between generation of feminists who were strong, professional women yet did not wish to be seen as strong, professional women. More importantly, she did not want her strength to come at the expense of tarnishing her husband’s image. As the Washington Post reported at the time:
Marilyn Quayle recalled, “It became apparent that enough of a myth had been drawn up that it was detrimental.” The myth, she said, was that she “ran the campaign because Dan was too weak” or that she was some sort of “magic manipulator” of her husband. All untrue, “unfair and ridiculous,” she said. “It was frustrating, very frustrating because . . . Dan and I were used to operating in a certain way.”
Marilyn Quayle was so fastidious about safeguarding her husband’s image that when she saw a framed photo of him playing golf, taken at an unflattering angle that made him look paunchy, she literally ripped the picture from the wall. She scribbled out Dan Quayle’s image in the photo, and threw the whole thing in the trash. (Marilyn Quayle later downplayed parts of this story though it was confirmed by several of VP Quayle’s staff at the time).
Marilyn Quayle had a 1950s attitude when it came to protecting her husband and a 1980s feminist attitude when it came to her own career. “I’d like to dispel the myth that went on for so long that when you put a wedding ring on a woman, her brain stops,” Marilyn Quayle said during an international tour in 1989 where she was trying to spread awareness of natural disasters. Like most women during the late 20th century, the Second Lady had a hard time balancing her conservatism, her feminism and her loyalty towards the VP’s image. No doubt if she had ditched the feminism and had simply been a soft, dutiful spouse to Dan Quayle, her life would have been easier. Certainly the press would have treated her with the same sympathy that they treated First Lady Barbara Bush at the time.
Marilyn Quayle was a feminist, however, though no doubt she would have disliked being called one. She was loyal to her husband but not to a fault. When Dan Quayle humiliated her, she refused to be his doormat. In 1980 Congressmen Thomas Evans Jr, Tom Railsback and Dan Quayle went on a golfing trip to Florida. Staying with the three men was Playboy model Paula Parkinson. Parkinson, in a later interview in Playboy magazine, implied that Quayle had hit on her during the trip. (Parkinson often detailed her affairs with DC Republican congressmen. When asked why only Republicans she replied “I don’t do Democrats!”)
Dan Quayle angrily denied the accusation, stating he had only played golf during that trip.
Marilyn Quayle, when asked about the scandal, replied icily “Anybody who knows Dan Quayle knows he would rather play golf than have sex any day.” It was a perfect statement. The future Second Lady’s response was the Platonic ideal of a dagger to the throat masquerading as wifely loyalty. Marilyn Quayle both protected her husband and emasculated him publicly (and no doubt intentionally). Had Dan Quayle been unfaithful during that golf trip? Probably not, but simply being present on a trip with a Playboy model was dumb and sufficient to publicly humiliate his wife. He deserved every bit of the scorn Marilyn Quayle heaped on his head in the aftermath of the scandal.
Looking back on the Paula Parkinson scandal, Marilyn Quayle’s withering comment about her husband’s low libido may have saved his political career. Congressmen Evans Jr and Railsback failed to win reelection in 1982. Only Dan Quayle emerged from that Florida golfing trip unscathed.
Marilyn Quayle exists as a conservative foremother of centrist Republican feminism. She had to constantly perform the balancing act between good political wife and strong professional woman. It was a false choice but forty years ago it was taken for granted that good wives could not be good professionals or vice versa. Marilyn Quayle predated Hillary Clinton by refusing to make that choice. In fact, Marilyn Quayle’s emasculating comment about her husband showed that she was willing to tread ground that even Hillary Clinton refused to go despite Clinton’s husband’s far greater crimes.
Hillary Clinton has been enjoying a revival lately, and rightly so. Her plan to lower the Medicare eligibility age in 1993 has resurfaced after Bernie Sanders suggested a near-identical plan recently. Hillary Clinton has probably been one of the most maligned and abused politicians in US history but she has also been lauded as breaking new ground for women in government. Marilyn Quayle has taken a much quieter role when it comes to the public eye but her own strength as a form of precursor to Hillary Clinton is undeniable. And Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff was right to recognize her accomplishments as well as the accomplishments of many Second Ladies who came before him.