Changing roles for political wives

Carol Goar August 20 1984

Changing roles for political wives

Carol Goar August 20 1984

Changing roles for political wives


Carol Goar

Geills Turner insists on carrying her own bags. Mila Mulroney is better at charming a crowd than the leader of the Opposition is. And Lucille Broadbent is convinced that her husband, Ed, would stay home if their roles were reversed and she had the more demanding career. The wives of the three federal leaders are distinctly different women. And, as they move through the glare of election publicity, they are changing the image of political wives simply by being themselves on the campaign trail.

Unlike the 206 women fighting aggressively for seats in the House of Commons, the three spouses have to be gentle pioneers. They are caught uncomfortably between the expectations of different generations of voters. Many older citizens expect the Prime Minister’s wife to be a smiling, supportive helpmate. But the women’s liberation movement transformed perceptions of the role that a politician’s wife should play. Younger voters began looking to the Prime Minister’s wife, in particular, as an archetype of the modern woman: someone who pursued her own goals, even if she was married to a man who headed the government.

The tension created by the competing

expectations caused Margaret Trudeau and Maureen McTeer continuing grief. Trudeau observed in her memoirs: “A few people wrote to tell me that they admired me for my independence and courage. Many more considered me willful and destructive.” McTeer, in turn, bridled under criticism from older Conservatives that she should not have retained her maiden name when she married former Tory leader Joe Clark. Clearly, the wife of the next Prime Minister will have to find a compromise between old and new, and all three leaders’ wives are grappling with that dilemma on the campaign trail.

Geills Turner told Maclean's in an interview aboard Turner’s chartered DC-9: “The role of a party leader’s wife should not be rigidly defined. It very much depends on the woman.” Turner, a systems engineer with IBM in Montreal before she married at age 25 and mothered four children, noted, “Fm of a different generation than Margaret and Maureen. I’m 46. I guess I came at the tail end of the stay-at-home-wife generation. But then I wanted to stay home and be with my children.” Looking ahead to the possibility of living in the prime ministerial residence, she added, “Hopefully, I’m enough older than Margaret and Maureen that it would be easier for me to reconcile the two roles with one foot in

each camp. I’d like to think I can be a supportive wife with enough independence to make some sort of contribution on my own.”

Indeed, Turner had an unexpected opportunity to play the supportive wife last week on her husband’s campaign swing through Quebec. During a luncheon stop in Trois Rivières a waiter accidentally spilled coffee on Turner’s lap. While RCMP members stood guard outside a restaurant washroom, Turner slipped out of his stained trousers, and gave them to Regional Development Minister André Ouellet, who in turn passed them on to Geills Turner in the women’s washroom for cleaning. But in addition to traditional services, Turner vows that one of her contributions will be to keep her husband in touch with ordinary Canadians. “A Prime Minister doesn’t have time to take a deep breath and see what it’s like in the grocery store,” she said. “I hope I will be viewed as the same person as before and people will feel free to talk to me.”

During the first half of the campaign Turner took a long-promised one-week vacation with her two youngest sons, David, 16, and Andrew, 12, in the Alberta foothills, then joined Elizabeth, 20, and her husband on the campaign trail. Michael, 18, is staying in Toronto to work as a day camp counsellor. On the

road, Turner carries her own bags most of the time and lingers on the fringe of crowds shaking hands and chatting, while Turner works in the spotlight. “I deliberately go to the sidelines and talk to people who would be intimidated to come up to the Prime Minister,” she explained. Recently, when the jet made a refuelling stop she delighted onlookers by kicking off her shoes and tossing a frisbee on the tarmac with Elizabeth and a Turner aide. Turner will begin campaigning on her own this week in Yellowknife.

The Conservatives would not dream of sending Brian and Mila Mulroney in different directions.

The 31-year-old wife of the Opposition leader often leaves her husband for a few hours to visit a children’s hospital, speak at a ladies’ lunch or tour a senior citizens’ home. But the couple comes together when Mulroney has a major rally, passing through the crowd and mounting the stage hand-in-hand. Mulroney agrees with Ontario Premier William Davis who said last week that “Mila will get more votes for you than you will for yourself.”

Still, Mulroney is the most traditional of the three wives and she makes no apology for being old-fashioned. “I think it is kind of a compliment that I made a lot of choices and decisions on my own and that people are still comfortable with me because I do not threaten their choices and decisions,” she said in an interview last week with Maclean's reporter Terry Hargreaves. At the same time, Mila intends to finish the engineering course that she quit at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia)—three courses short of her civil engineering degree—when she married Mulroney in 1973. Eventually, says Mila, she dreams of “getting into some sort of little business.” But all that is eight years from now.

“That’s two four-year terms,” Mulroney predicted confidently.

She admits she still finds it difficult to give full-length speeches. “I don’t mind speaking with just a few notes, but reading a whole text that I’ve written—I write my own stuff—is something I really have to work on because it’s so new.” Barely pausing for breath, she added, “And I am going to work on it.”

The Mulroneys had a long talk with their three children, Caroline, 10, Bene-

dict, 8, and Mark, 5, before launching into the campaign. The family agreed that the children should join their parents occasionally, but not for the whole tour. Noted Mila: “They can’t be entertained on the bus. They can’t have exercise. Two whole months is just too much strain.” The two older children are attending camp in Algonquin Park until September, while Mark will be staying with Mila’s mother in Montreal. Mul-

roney is unabashedly enjoying the campaign although, she admits, “I am a neophyte in the political arena. I have a lot of learning to do.”

Lucille Broadbent, in contrast, is an experienced campaigner. In 1979, when Ed Broadbent fought his first election as NDP leader, she was hesitant to join him on a national tour. She believed

that unlike her husband, she had not been elected to speak for the party. After some soul-searching, she decided that she could help and gamely joined her husband on innumerable tours of steel plants, paper mills and shopping centres. Still, five years later the 48-year-old former nurse and school teacher is not completely comfortable with her role in the campaign. “It is very difficult to define the role of the politician’s wife,” she said during a recent in-flight interview with Maclean 's Hargreaves. “The politician has been elected democratically and therefore he represents a certain constituency and party. Now the wife is in a different position. She is not elected. Maybe if the spouse wanted to take a definite position, he or she should be elected to a post in the party.”

That slight sense of unease affects Lucille Broadbent’s behavior on the campaign trail. She mingles in crowds with genuine warmth. But unlike Mila Mulroney, she rarely speaks in public. Still, Broadbent, a francophone who grew up in Ottawa, Ont., was quick to supplement her husband’s rusty French at a Montreal meeting of NDP workers last month. Pushing past the glare of the television lights that blocked her view of the audience, she climbed up on a chair to tell the 100 workers that she and Broadbent appreciated their dedication and enthusiasm. She plans to spend most of her time in the final half of the campaign knocking on doors for her husband in his home riding of Oshawa, where he holds a comfortable 12,000-vote margin.

At first glance, Lucille Broadbent appears to be a traditional stay-at-home partner. But that is a way of living that came only after two careers and six years as a single mother supporting a son, Paul, now 24, after her first husband died of a brain tumor in 1965. The Broadbents also have a daughter, Christine, 11, who is vacationing with family friends. Paul serves with the Armed Forces in Ottawa. Broadbent is convinced that her husband, who earns $94,815 as an MP and party leader, would stay home if their roles were reversed. Said Broadbent: “If I had some kind of career that demanded that he look after the household, I feel that he would be willing to do it. I think that is very important in a relationship.”

Lucille Broadbent is unlikely to confront the adjustment of becoming a Prime Minister’s spouse. But either Geills Turner or Mila Mulroney will become the first wife to live at 24 Sussex Drive since Maureen McTeer and Joe Clark lived there until after the 1980 election. Clearly, being the wife of the Prime Minister is one of the most challenging jobs a Canadian woman can have.