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A Trophy Article

ccupaiuolos Icon Posted by Christine Cupaiuolo

July 9th, 2007

Cross-posted from Women’s Voices for Change

From an image standpoint, The New York Times probably has a point devoting an entire article to the potential impact of Jeri Kehn Thompson, wife of soon-to-be Republican candidate Fred Thompson. She is 24 years younger than her husband, and she is much less of a public figure than other potential first ladies on the campaign trail.

But the article’s approach is alarming on several levels. It begins by pondering the public perception of Jeri Kehn Thompson and how much she epitomizes a “trophy wife” — a sexist term (as Keely Savoie notes) the NYT attempts to elevate with some history:

On a morning cable news show last month, Joe Scarborough, the commentator and former Republican congressman from Florida, compared Mrs. Thompson to a stripper. The comment came after a segment on the use of stripper poles in exercise routines, but it still stung. It is hard to imagine a man, however handsome, suffering similar insult.

The term “trophy wife” was coined by Fortune magazine in 1989 and immediately entered the language. Although it often has a pejorative spin, the term originally meant the second (or third) wife of a corporate titan, who was younger, beautiful and — equally important — accomplished in her own right, which describes Mrs. Thompson.

New York Times writer Susan Saulny, though deserving of kudos for acknowledging the double standard, has no excuse for spending the rest of the article treating Jeri Kehn Thompson as a mere object of study, rather than as a human being. For a story purportedly about the effect she will have on her husband’s campaign, readers are told virtually nothing about her family history or career. The only salient facts are that she is “a former Senate aide and spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.”

We do learn that “photos of her in form-fitting gowns” are “circulating on the Internet,” and that on the campaign trail, “her most dramatic statements have been sartorial, like gold-lamé wedge sandals on a campaign stop, or a plunging neckline for a Washington dinner.”

But we learn nothing about where she grew up, how Jerri Kehn and Fred Thompson met, what it was like for her to be spokeswoman of the RNC, or what occupies her time in the present-day.

Saulny instead spends most of the article soliciting commentary from a variety of sources — from conservative consultant Frank Luntz, who thinks political spouses as a rule are not important, to the website, Footballguystalk.com, where “Mr. Thompson not only won votes thanks to his wife, but one anonymous poster said, ‘I think he’s my new idol!’”

While opinions differ about Jeri Kehn Thompson’s potential impact, everyone seems to be in agreement that she is “attractive,” “pretty” and most significantly, “so much younger and vital” than her husband. Saulny asserts that her “youthfulness, permanent tan and bleached blond hair present a contrast to the 64-year-old man who hopes to win the hearts of the conservative core of the Republican party.”

Buried in the piece is the fact that Jeri Kehn Thompson is 40 years old and married her husband later in both of their lives. We’d like to think that at this point someone might give her a little agency, a little credit for being herself.

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