the body politic

Why Should Wives Have to Answer for Their Husbands’ Behavior?

Camille Cosby.
Camille Cosby. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Among the many things that lawyers are tussling over in the various legal cases involving comedian Bill Cosby is the question of whether his wife of 51 years, Camille, will be compelled this week to testify about her knowledge of his criminal and sexual history in a Springfield, Massachusetts, court. Camille has been ordered to take the stand in a defamation case being brought against Bill by seven women he has accused of lying, after they accused him of sexually assaulting them.

It is not the first time that Camille has been asked to publicly react to stories about her husband’s extramarital sexual behavior. For 20 years, since tales of his dalliances — which reportedly commenced soon after their marriage did — began appearing in the tabloids, Camille has been called upon to comment. And she has, perhaps at greatest length to Oprah Winfrey, in a 2000 interview in which she said that her husband had told her about being unfaithful “back in the ‘70s.” She told Winfrey that the revelations of his affairs had proved “embarrassing in terms of it being an invasion of our private lives.” But, she said in another interview at the time, “all old personal negative issues between Bill and me were resolved years ago … We are a united couple.”

In more recent years, as stories of not just infidelity but rape and assault have begun to pile up — at first to little notice, and then suddenly in numbers almost too large to comprehend — Camille’s position has become more fraught. She was next to him on-camera, nodding silently, in 2014 as he lectured an AP reporter on integrity after the reporter asked him about assault claims. In December of that year, Camille made a statement, reminding the public that “I met my husband, Bill Cosby, in 1963, and we were married in 1964” and assuring them that “the man I met, and fell in love with, and whom I continue to love, is the man you all knew through his work … He is a kind man, a generous man, a funny man, and a wonderful husband, father, and friend. He is the man you thought you knew.”

It is telling that Camille kicked off that defense of her husband with a reminder of the years in which they met and married. Because the plight of Camille Cosby speaks volumes about the speed of social change that has taken place during the half-century bridged by her marriage.

Here is some of what has changed: our understanding of rape, consent, and the unequal sexual power dynamics between men and women. For decades, one of the most famous men in America managed to keep the alleged serial assault of dozens of women secret; today, he is facing criminal charges. Our ability to question male authority and the way that it has long worked to silence women has sharpened; dozens of women who report that they spent decades blaming themselves and feeling shame and fear after their encounters with Bill Cosby now feel free enough to tell their stories.

Yet the woman who is being asked to offer testimony and render judgment on those stories is one whose marriage began in a wholly different era, one in which the dependency relationship between men and women very often left wives at social, economic, familial, and certainly public disadvantage. As recently as a few decades ago, marriage was built on expectations that women give up some part of themselves — their educations, their own professional aims, their choice of where to settle, their names — in order to form legal alliances with men on whom they would then, necessarily, become dependent. Husbands were the centers and wives were supposed to work around them, in reaction to them: to tame them, domesticate them, prop them up, offer them emotional support, raise their families, clean their houses, often to provide them free ideas for which the men might receive paychecks.

It was a pretty raw deal. And perhaps cruelest of all the inequities of traditionally unequal marriage was that while the successes of the husband, no matter how enabled by the labor and sacrifice or intellectual contributions of the wife, never really accrued directly to the wife, the failures of the husband, especially and damnably those failures that took place outside the purview of the marriage, somehow redounded more seriously to her. Camille has said she felt shame about having her private life exposed, surely in part because assumptions about straying men always include the suspicion that unappealing or unavailable wives are somehow to blame. Now, Camille is subject to further criticism: for not believing the women who made the accusations, for not condemning Bill soon enough, for not having guessed the truth about him. Wives are supposed to adhere loyally to their mates, through good times and bad, until those mates do something bad enough, at which point they are expected to judge them swiftly and with clear eyes.

This week, a family friend leaked to tabloid newspapers a story claiming that Camille has turned; that she is remaining married to Bill so that she can avoid testifying against him, but that she believed he “deserves the hell he is going through.” That story has not been officially corroborated. Nonetheless, it satisfied what the public has long been clamoring for: the wife at last reckoning publicly with what her husband has done.


Camille Hanks, whose upper-middle-class parents both had college degrees, was a student at the University of Maryland planning on a teaching career when she met Bill Cosby, who was seven years her senior. It was the early ‘60s, the peak of the postwar American rush to the altar; around half of brides were younger than 20, and 60 percent of female college students were dropping out, many of them to marry. The suffocating expectations of early marriage and domestic servility — especially for middle-class white women, but also for many middle-class black women — were so intense that they helped make Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique a best seller in the same year that Camille met Bill. She left college at 19 to marry him, and they soon moved to Hollywood, a town she loathed, where his career would take off.

Though she would return to school decades later, earning a master’s and a Ph.D. in the early ‘90s, in those early years she was more or less subsidiary to her husband. As Camille told Oprah in 2000, “I always said, ‘My husband is the public person. He is the one who has something to say.’ I never felt I had anything to contribute, something that people would want to hear.” Camille raised five children in the years it would later be revealed that her husband was carousing at the Playboy Mansion, having affairs, and, according to his accusers, beginning his pattern of drugging women and having sexual encounters with them without their consent.

Camille has said she knew about her husband’s infidelities, and it has been reported that a marital reckoning led to the family’s move from Los Angeles to Massachusetts — though Bill continued to work on the West Coast. It was clearly important to both of them to maintain the marriage. It probably also matters that the Cosbys’ marriage began just a year before the publication of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” a report that placed the blame for “the deterioration of the Negro family” squarely on the dissolution of marriages that left many women the heads of their families, a matriarchal configuration Moynihan claimed resulted from a “tangle of pathology.” In 1965, Cosby had become the first black man ever to star in a prime-time television show; he was conscious enough of his non-dissolved, traditional nuclear family that he made it the foundation of his public persona, his comedy act, and eventually of his blockbuster sitcom.

The work that Camille was doing — the having and raising of children, the staying married to a man she knew had been unfaithful to her — was at the heart of her husband’s success. She was also rumored to have creative input, to have suggested, for example, that The Cosby Show be about a middle-class, rather than a working-class, family. But she was getting only subsidiary credit: He talked about her warmly, made her the tough-love mom/wife punch line. But she wasn’t dancing in a sweater in the opening credits; she wasn’t spending her evenings at the Playboy Mansion; she wasn’t on the covers of magazines.

Camille would become Bill’s business manager; in later years she has helped to guide his philanthropic contributions; she produced a Broadway play and published a couple of books. Interestingly, as Bill became a respectability-politics scold and denier of systemic racism — informing black audiences “it’s not what [the white man]’s doing to you; it’s what you’re not doing” — Camille spoke and wrote eloquently about the racism behind the murder of her son Ennis on a Los Angeles freeway, penning a USA Today column called “America Taught My Son’s Killer to Hate Blacks.”

Now, after decades of Camille getting footnoted, fundamentally unserious credit for her role in her husband’s accomplishments, it is time for her to answer for his crimes. Never mind that when a wife’s whole world is built around her husband’s, taking a part in bringing him down, deciding to believe that he is a criminal and a liar, means dismantling the wife’s world as well. Camille, who has never had a full public identity of her own, who has always lived in the educational and economic and social shadow of her husband, is now being asked to offer testimony (literal and figurative) on whether that man and the career and reputation around which she has woven her life and with whom she had a family is a criminal, whether the version of morality he has sold America for decades was all built on a violent, vile set of lies.

It feels very unjust. But for wives, answering for a husband’s misdeeds has long been part of the bargain.


Which I guess brings us to Hillary Clinton, who in the past few weeks has again drawn the giddy attentions of those on both the right and the left who’ve been dying to dredge up tales of her husband’s sexual past in the context of her presidential campaign, but have not found a legitimate excuse to do so until now. Thank you, Donald Trump.

Though Trump and some overeager pundits have drawn direct comparisons between Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby, I’m not suggesting an equivalency between the former president’s misdeeds — alleged and admitted — and those of Bill Cosby. My comparison between the Clintons and the Cosbys in this context is instead about how the length of some public marriages means that they must comprise and account for dramatic shifts in cultural assumptions about gender, sex, and power.

What Hillary’s critics are trying to claim is that her role as a feminist history maker, or as a feminist advocate on behalf of reproductive rights or paid leave or higher minimum wage or improved access for women and girls to education and economic opportunity around the world, is badly compromised by the fact that she supported her husband not only after his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, but also after allegations that he exposed himself to Paula Jones in 1991, that he groped Kathleen Willey against her will in 1993, and that he raped Juanita Broaddrick in 1978.

Regardless of whether you believe these claims against Bill to be spurious or plausible, what is clear is that his wife is being called on to answer for them, or more precisely, that she is being called on to answer for her role as … his wife.

Though Hillary Rodham married Bill Clinton 11 years after Camille Hanks married Bill Cosby, and after having earned her own law degree, the terms of her marriage were also shaped in their own way by a presumption of a husband’s centrality and a wife’s subsidiary nature.

Hillary deferred her professional ambitions to move to Arkansas so that her husband might pursue his professional ambitions. Her desire to keep her own name was thwarted when her remaining a Rodham was blamed for his reelection loss in 1980; she became a Clinton. As First Lady, she would write, she was forced into what “by definition, [is] a derivative position.” Hillary has spent decades maneuvering her career and her family not only around her husband’s career, but around his personal peccadilloes; she has been called to comment again and again on his extramarital affairs; she has been blamed for them (see the T-shirt “Hillary 2016: Even Bill Doesn’t Want Her”); she has blamed herself for them (“She thinks she was not smart enough; not sensitive enough, not free enough of her own concerns and struggles” to pay enough attention to the stresses her husband was under, Hillary’s late friend Diane Blair reported in her journal about her conversations with Hillary about Bill’s affair with Lewinsky); she has been mocked for claiming that she wouldn’t stand by her man like Tammy Wynette, then criticized for standing by her man in the wake of his impeachment, then regularly reminded that doing so was what enabled her to finally embark on her own political career (“The reason she’s a U.S. senator, the reason she’s a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around,” said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in 2008).

Though Bill’s career took precedence over hers, Hillary was given a kind of distaff credit: as his rock, as the brains, as the tough one. “She was very strong, and he needed her desperately,” the Clintons’ former associate Bernard Nussbaum recently told the New York Times. “He would not have been president, I don’t think, without her.”

So … her strength enabled his presidency, but now that she might be president herself, his weakness could imperil her chances.

Like the Cosbys’, the Clintons’ marriage continues in a world that is different from the one in which it began. The contemporary feminist respect and attention accorded to women who make claims of sexual mistreatment — respect and attention that, ironically enough, Hillary attempted to express when she said that sexual-assault victims have “the right to be believed” — permits a reexamination of the allegations that have been made against her husband.

But the position she is being put in is emblematic of the double binds placed on wives in all kinds of circumstances. Husbands act; wives react to them. Husbands behave poorly; people look to wives for explanations of why. Wives pay prices for goods they never bought; they do time in publicity hell for actions they never took; they receive judgments for crimes they did not commit. They are offered impossible choices: Do they condemn their partners and thereby destroy the legacies and legitimacy they have helped to build, and if they do not, do they become culpable in those partners’ misdeeds?

Michelle Goldberg wrote last week in Slate that “it would be a profound sexist irony if these accusations, having failed to derail Bill Clinton’s political career, came back to haunt his wife.”

It’s true and horrible. Although it might not be ironic so much as symptomatic of exactly the dynamics that have placed men at the center — of marriages, of power, of politics — for the whole of this country’s history, while wives have been kept at the margins.

Until, that is, they are called to answer for their husbands.

Answering for Their Husbands’ Sins