By Robert Pimm
Financial Times, August 1 2003
Make a list of some of the husbands of famous and successful women. Guy Ritchie. Prince Philip. Gordon Roddick. Sam Mendes. Bill Clinton. The late Denis Thatcher.
Should we feel sorry for them?
Surely not. All are or were high-achieving alpha-males, loaded with power or wealth or both. Suitable objects for envy, rather than pity.
So why did Denis Thatcher once describe himself as the most “shadowy husband of all time”?
The idea that there’s something awkward, quaint or just plain weird about a man who’s not the dominant partner in a marriage is surprisingly tenacious. Former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen described Sir Denis’s role as consort to prime minister Margaret Thatcher as “a selfless, difficult role for a man”. It’s an adage in Hollywood that celebrity marriages only work when the husband is more famous than the wife.
But you don’t have to be famous to run into stereotypes. When a newly arrived diplomat here in Berlin asks me, an ex-diplomat, what I do for a living, I say I’ve been looking after the children since I swapped jobs with my wife at the British Embassy last year.
“Oh,” she says. “So you’re the house-boy now, are you?”
“Even in the 21st century, the fact that my husband and I are pretty equal breadwinners causes problems with some people,” says Professor Claire Chilvers, a senior manager in the Department of Health. “Heaven help the power husbands.”
It’s not easy for either partner. Professor Gillian Slater is vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University. Six years ago her husband retired from teaching and became a flying instructor. “My colleagues at work are fine about him,” she says. “They see a retired academic. The hardest people to deal with are his [current] colleagues. If I go to a staff do as his spouse, I get treated as if I might have come from outer space.”
The man with the pram
I try to contact the husbands of a number of high-achieving women to ask whether they’ve had problems with people’s attitudes to their position in the relationship. Most are too busy to talk to me.
Bernd Becker says that’s understandable. He’s at home looking after two small children while his wife runs her own law firm in Bonn.
“People think it’s creepy that I’m financially dependent on my wife,” Bernd says. “If you look at how much she earns, it was obvious I should stop work. But everyone said it was a mistake.”
“Actually, most men say they’d do it like a shot, if they could. Then they give you 20 reasons why they can’t.”
How about women?
“Most say they wished they had a man like me. But a few think I must be looking after the children because I have to. They ask when my wife died.”
And was it a mistake?
“No. The freedom is fantastic. It’s tough when the kids are tiny. And I’m the only man with a pram in town. But the only real downside is that people don’t respect what you’re doing.”
Bernd believes there are two theories about the husbands of successful women.
“One says men are afraid of powerful women. Men like to be the dominant partner, it’s in their genes. So most of them go for non-scary low-achieving women.” According to this school of thought, this means the alpha females can end up with what Bernd calls “the bottom of the barrel. The scrapings”.
“The other school,” he continues, “says successful women prefer men who are at least their intellectual equals. They don’t like dating down, the way men do. So they always insist on the cream of the crop.”
That makes much more sense to me. I mean look at Hillary Clinton. Bill may not have been one of the great presidents, but he was hardly a loser, was he?
Stop making sense
My friend Diane says the problem with atypical relationships is that they challenge people in conventional set-ups.
“Look at you,” she says. “A lot of people think that a guy in an embassy swapping jobs with his wife so he can stay at home and look after the kids makes no sense at all.”
“Yeah, well,” I say. “Sometimes it’s good to know people think what you’re doing is daft. But it helps if you’re sure they’re wrong.”
“Millions of couples will hate you,” she says. “While they’re scratching around trying to schedule in some quality time with their kids, you’re sitting smugly at home playing endless games of Monopoly. You’re making a political statement that both parents working full-time and buying in child-care is worse than having one parent stop work.” “No I’m not,” I say. “You’d have to be insane or childless even to consider claiming that one pattern of parenting was best.”
Diane sips her coffee. “Tell that to the Pope,” she says.
Any man with a brilliant wife will warm to the conclusion that top class women choose top class men. But it gets better.
Claire’s a member of an embassy in Berlin whose husband has accompanied her on her posting to Germany.
“People say to me: ‘And what does your husband do?'” she says. “Like he can’t just be looking after the kids – I mean, that’s women’s work, isn’t it? I can see them thinking, ‘What kind of bloke would put up with trailing round the world after a woman? Must be a right drip.’ So I tell them the sex is mind-blowing. That usually shuts ’em up.”
Maybe times are changing. At the last count there were 11 women working at the British Embassy in Berlin whose husbands were accompanying them on a posting. I can’t vouch for the quality of the sex. But I can guarantee that you don’t need to feel sorry for any of the men. In fact, they represent a colossal array of talent.
But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m one of them.