The Future of Spousework

Colleges need to pay more attention to the role of presidential partners -- not only for their sake but for the presidents and institutions, writes Teresa Oden.

August 3, 2007

“Spousework” is my term for a range of tasks that the spouses of college presidents perform or may perform. There is the involuntary role (being seen as an ambassador for the institution the partner leads). Every spouse is stuck with this. There are voluntary roles that could also be delegated to many people other than the spouse -- helping the leader by performing tasks that impact the couple (such as planning events at the official residence, running the leader’s personal errands) or helping with institutional efforts that do not directly impact the leadership couple (such as serving on the recycling committee). There are also voluntary roles that only a select few people could fill -- acting as a confidante, sounding board, extra pair of eyes and ears, source of new ideas and different point of view. And there are voluntary roles that no one other than the leader or the spouse can play, such as lobbying for the needs of the family and of the couple, jointly and individually.

The most fundamental kind of spousework, just like housework, will never go away. It comes with the territory when you share your life with an academic leader. And as long as we spouses are seen as living logos of the institutions our partners serve, we will need to adapt our behavior in certain ways. We are not pledged to serve, but it is, and always will be, incumbent on us to preserve the good name of the institution.

With regard to the other types of spousework -- the artful kind, which implies supporting the leader in a skillful, intelligent way, and the active kind, which implies a significant commitment of time -- the future may not be so secure. Artful, intelligent spousework, for me and for many others, is the good stuff. It is complex and challenging, and the work can become its own reward. It is what some of us instinctively hoped for, even if we couldn’t exactly define it. It is what we searched for until we discovered it, or it discovered us. And that’s the problem. Though this kind of spousework has been around a long time, it remains a quiet, unrecognized achievement. I have no doubt that some people wrap up their years in the spouse’s role without ever suspecting that there was a whole level of spousework they never glimpsed.

In the past spouses were women who were locked into marriage and out of personal careers. They had little choice but to persevere in the spouse role, and I suspect many of them became skilled in giving artful, intelligent support. Today women spouses have more options and can put their energies elsewhere, without ever learning what spousework might have to offer them. As more women are appointed to leadership roles, the number of male spouses is burgeoning. These men are not generally expected to make themselves available. Since a certain level of engagement is almost a prerequisite for intelligent spousework, many male spouses could also miss out on its rich possibilities.

This type of spousework could flourish, I believe, if academia came to recognize what it entails. One welcome byproduct would be that an institution that hires a leader who does not have a spouse would be in a good position to analyze the kind of support it might want to offer that leader.

About active spousework -- taking on tasks that either the couple or the institution needs to get done -- I'm less sanguine. Personal career choices will always impinge on active spousework. Fair enough, I say. More problematic is the lingering culture of expectation. Some decades ago a sociologist named Hanna Papanek, writing in the American Journal of Sociology, coined a phrase, “the two-person single career.” The two-person single career is a “combination of formal and informal institutional demands which is placed on both members of a married couple of whom only the man is employed by the institution.” You would think that the women’s movement would have killed this phenomenon dead by now. Not so. The “formal and informal institutional demands” still lurk in the corners.

At many institutions today, search committees and boards of trustees assure incoming spouses that their active participation will not be taken for granted. But there can be problems with these assurances. Some of us find that expectations are still harbored elsewhere. The word that spouses are free to choose hasn’t yet reached all campus stakeholders; their attitudes are conditioned by their experiences with spouses from the past -- perhaps a very distant past, in the case of older alumni. Recently I have met people, members of one constituency or another, who expressed surprise that I had chosen to be “involved”; they honestly did not expect it. But that liberated attitude, though refreshing, is still exceedingly rare. In addition to the problem of lingering expectations there is the fact that some spouses still feel pressed to take on unwanted tasks. Many leaders find there is simply not enough support staff to help take care of the house and/or the entertaining load that come with the job. They may not have time to run their personal errands or to help with family responsibilities. Spouses step into the gap, sometimes with reluctance; they become actively involved under duress.

Expectations -- the kind that weren’t supposed to be around any more -- can make us feel trapped, particularly if they are ones we really don’t want to fulfill. Quite naturally, we want to escape. Sometimes escape seems too complicated, causing more trouble than it might be worth, so we cave in. I have done this many times, but not so readily now that I recognize that, by doing so, I am helping to perpetuate the culture of expectation. I am only making it harder for the person who might follow me. How we spouses deal with the lingering culture of expectation will have an impact on the future of spouses’ participation.

When unwanted expectations are a problem and saying “no” doesn’t seem to be an option, some spouses find ways of taking themselves off the available list. They take new jobs or throw themselves more completely into their own careers.

They may decide to live separately. Other kinds of difficulty can also cause spouses to veer away from active involvement in their partners’ careers. An official residence that affords little comfort or privacy, the realization that their partners are not going to have much time to share with them in the foreseeable future, feelings of isolation -- these things also drive spouses to look for solutions that, in the end, take them away from active involvement. Some of these coping mechanisms, while helpful, are Band-Aids applied to problems that need to be addressed. Even worse, a particular solution may address one problem while it creates another, and in the final analysis it is not always clear that there has been any net gain. And when spouses make deliberate efforts to distance themselves from institutional life because of some discomfort with the situation in which they find themselves, the institutions themselves are diminished.

Personally, I remain committed to an active role. I help with the entertaining and the management of the residence. I show up at all kinds of functions on campus and accompany my husband on some of his travels. I do my homework before I meet new members of the various constituencies. I stay involved in these ways even though it cuts into the time I might devote to my own interests. I stay involved even though I am an introvert who would rather curl up with a good book than attend an event. I stay involved even though it irritates me when I am treated like a non-entity or a figurehead. I do it to help my husband. I do it so we will be closer as a couple. Somewhere in my brain the pros and cons, with regard to my own well-being, are under continual, if unconscious, assessment. The positive experiences that have accrued from active spousework continue to outweigh the tedious and unpleasant ones. I know that if I had dropped out years ago, as I once was sorely tempted to do, I would have missed many wonderful friendships, many memorable experiences. I believe that dropping out would have, in the long run, damaged my marriage.

I am continually amazed by the slowness with which the culture of expectation is changing. Conditioned attitudes are part of the problem, but I think there is something else that is less innocent. From the institution’s point of view, those of us who cooperate willingly in the “two-person single career” model of academic leadership, who take up the tasks that leaders simply can’t manage, are handy folks to have around. It may appear that the academy has a good deal going, and why, then, should the impetus for change come from that quarter? I would argue, however, that it could have an even better deal going, that institutions are not profiting as much as they might. The spouses are a talented group, and in many places their talents are being squandered on mundane things, their energy depleted by the exasperation they feel when their partners aren’t provided with the support staff that is needed. Since the academy is the biggest loser when spouses drop out or never get involved in the first place, it might well start looking at how to keep them engaged.

Institutional Care for the Spouse. Some spouses love their situation, some are passably comfortable and others put up a good front. Some are, for career or family reasons or purely as a matter of choice, completely out of the picture. There will probably always be a mix of this sort. The spouse group is, as I said at the start, a very mixed bag. But boards of trustees need to realize that spouses can start out with friendly feelings toward the institution and end up exasperated, resentful, even hostile. That is not a healthy state of affairs for institution, leader or spouse. Boards must be truly attentive to the spouses, as opposed to merely courteous; real effort is required. Spouses will not be openly candid in response to a casual “How’s it going?” Like the leaders, they quickly learn to say what they think the constituent wants to hear. They will be more patient and trusting with interlocutors who can exhibit some understanding of the issues that spouses face.

Early intervention is always the best, and in this regard institutions can get off to a good start by developing a direct relationship with the spouse. In The President’s Spouse, David Riesman suggested that, when a new leader is coming from outside the institution, the search committee should work with the incoming spouse until after the leader has been installed, usually a period of some months. Alternatively, a special transition team might be given this responsibility. I think that’s a terrific idea; I wish I knew how to foster its implementation!

Spouses who are brand new to their roles should receive special attention. From the start they are one huge step behind. Their partners, the leadership candidates, become well-acquainted with the institution’s history, its hopes and its needs during the interview stage. They develop a good understanding of what the job is going to entail. They have been building the requisite skills for years, if not decades. The spouses, on the other hand, have probably not been prepping themselves for the new life that now looms before them. Their personalities may suit them well for the role of leader’s spouse -- or perhaps not. As job candidates are interviewed their spouses may be kept on the sidelines, with little opportunity to learn about the institution and the job at hand. If the search committee brings them into the negotiations at all, it is usually in the final stages of the search.

I have often thought that trustees should offer to assign one of their body to act as a liaison to the spouse during the transition period, especially if he or she has no prior experience as the leader’s spouse. Personally, I would have welcomed that sort of connection, especially if the trustee was someone who, through experience or study, had a good understanding of the impact of an academic leader’s job on his or her family. A little sensitivity toward the spouse’s unique situation and the sizeable adjustment that is involved would, I believe, go a long way toward keeping spouses engaged in positive ways.

Identifying the Needs. Another way for the institution to get off to a good start with the spouse is to analyze what the leadership position might require in the way of support staff. Some institutions have begun to supply their leaders with extra support staff to help manage the residence and the entertaining, and they should be congratulated. But others are still leaning heavily on the spouses in these areas, perhaps not realizing it. When a married leader is set to retire or leave an institution, the trustees might ask that leader’s spouse to list any tasks that he or she performed on the leader’s behalf. These will generally be tasks that could just as easily be handled by hired staff.

This exercise would highlight the areas where the institution might need to provide increased support to ensure that both office and residence function smoothly under the new administration. It is the only way I can think of to overcome the persistent problem of expectations being passed along from one spouse to another. It would also alert the board to the special plight of a new leader who does not have a spouse who is able or willing to task-share. Perhaps a house manager would be needed, to oversee the maintenance and frequent repairs that a larger, older residence might require. Perhaps an events manager should be provided, someone who will remember to notify the gardener ahead of time when an event is scheduled at the residence, someone who can be on the spot when the flowers or the folding tables or the bar supplies are delivered. A spouse who doesn’t want to take on these responsibilities will benefit from this kind of help, as will a leader who has no one else to whom they can be delegated. From personal experience I can honestly say that having staff available to help keep matters at the official residence organized is priceless.

Spouse to Spouse. When I think of the many leaders’ spouses I have met over the years, it strikes me that, as a group, we do not give ourselves much credit. The reason is, perhaps, not far to seek. We are a shadowy bunch, doing some of our best work out of sight, behind closed doors. Also, some of our work is, or soon becomes, second nature. It is tied to our marriage vows. The bottom line is that we are simply supporting the ones we love, and perhaps it strikes us as unseemly to congratulate ourselves for doing that. But I would argue that good spousework is hard-won and an effort in which we should all take pride.

If we who have already accrued some experience in the spouse role can begin to give ourselves a little more credit, benefit will accrue to those who are just entering this role. Spousework is complex and unsung; there is an art to doing it well, and it is an art which we all must teach ourselves. It is like parenting -- the pay-off for good parenting, as opposed to careless parenting, is huge. The same is true for spousework. Partners of newly-appointed leaders need to know all this. They need to be supported in the early days so that they don’t turn away in frustration and disappointment before even giving spousework a chance. Before the new leader takes up office, before the family moves into the official residence, these people need some preparation, some insight into the changes and challenges they are going to face. By and large, they are not getting it.

The National Association of Independent Schools and the Council of Independent Colleges are among a handful of organizations that are reaching out to spouses and helping them connect with one another. However, many of us are at institutions that do not belong to any national organization that recognizes spouse issues. While I laud those groups that show some concern for spouses, I feel that much more could, and perhaps should, be done, considering the impact that the leader’s career has on his or her family.

What a delight it would be if a network of spouses was available to all of us. Is it too ambitious to suggest that there should be an organization for spouses alone, no matter what groups their institutions or their partners belong to -- an organization that is designed primarily for us, rather than the academic leaders? Imagine typing “” on the computer and coming up with texts of a dozen discussions of pertinent issues or the names of spouses around the country who are interested in networking. Domestic partners, gay and straight, could connect with each other and share their concerns. Spouses who are blazing new trails, finding new ways to make worthwhile contributions, could share their stories. I think the time has come for something of that sort.

Society is largely ignorant of the way spouses contribute, the problems they tackle and the changes they accept. We are not the only group about which one could make such a statement, and I don’t make it because I want to label us as suffering victims. But this is not a healthy situation for us, our partners or the academy. It is because of this lack of understanding that search committees and boards of trustees are making promises on which they cannot deliver. Spouses are not, and perhaps never can be, entirely free to behave as they like. They have implicit responsibilities toward their partners and the institutions their partners serve. And while, strictly speaking, they may be free to choose their own level of involvement, they might have to fight for the right to choose, over and over again.

In many places and in many ways the spouses of academic leaders are still expected to pour tea, and some of us continue to allow ourselves to be pressed into service. The era of “no expectations” will never come if the spouses sit and wait. Spouses need to make their institutions aware of the problem, if unwanted tasks are falling to them because there is no one else at hand. Somehow members of all constituencies should be given to understand that when we spouses are actively involved, whether it is planning events, caring for official residences, or standing in receiving lines, it is by our own choice -- that we might at any time say “no” and do so with the board’s blessing. There is some risk in this; we might be considered selfish, unpleasant, demanding, even unsupportive. But nothing risked, nothing gained. Our freedom to engage in spousework on our own terms will never be real until we make it so.


Teresa Oden has been engaged in active spousework since 1989 at the Hotchkiss School, Kenyon College and currently at Carleton College. This essay is adapted from her forthcoming book, Spousework: Partners Supporting Academic Leaders.


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