Confessions of a Male Presidential Spouse

Ron Baenninger -- having retired from a career as a professor at a university -- considers what it means to be First Man at a college.

February 9, 2009

I recently retired from Temple University after almost 40 years on its faculty, and moved to St. Joseph, a little town near St. Cloud, Minnesota. My wife, who rose through the academic ranks at colleges in the Philadelphia area, is now president of the College of Saint Benedict. It is a long way from Philadelphia, and very different from a huge Research 1 megaversity like Temple. I have been adjusting to my new job as First Man, and to retirement, and to living in a very different part of the country.

To those of us who acquired our gender identities back in the 1950s it all seemed pretty clear: Boys took up careers so we could support a wife who stayed home and took care of us and our family. But sex roles have become much fuzzier, and I have had to work on incorporating them into my gender identity. As in many dual-career academic couples, I have done much of the cooking, cleaning, laundering, and child rearing in our marriage. My parents were shocked and dismayed when my first wife gave me a fancy frying pan for Christmas many years ago, a pan that is still with me. They were convinced that the frying pan, and all it stood for, would cause a divorce.

If they could see me now. I am sitting on the floor of the president’s house, polishing the president’s shoes for her. My wife is now a lot busier than I am, and has a sizeable staff. Her importance on and off campus is a lot greater than mine, so I suppose it makes sense that I polish the presidential shoes – which are smaller and easier to polish than my own shoes (which rarely need to be shiny). I have sometimes seen people polish the shoes of other people, but only when they were paid for it. And the polishers were always male, as were the polishees. Shoe-polishing used to occur in railroad stations, or in old-fashioned barber shops that were bastions of maleness – quiet places, with discreet sounds of snipping and stropping of razors, with a ballgame on the radio, and smells of witch hazel, shaving lather, and shoe polish. So here I sit polishing a woman’s shoes and not even getting paid for it.

My wife is very appreciative, and likes the way her shoes look after I finish. It has always been something of a mystery to me how women’s shoes get polished. Women don’t go to shoeshine parlors, and shoes are not sent out like laundry or dry cleaning. I have never seen women polishing shoes for anyone else – except my Mum, who used to polish Dad’s shoes when he commuted to New York City back in the 1950s. It was very important to her that he left the house in the morning looking “presentable”, as she used to put it. She also darned holes in his socks, using a blue plastic egg that fitted in the heels of his wool socks, where the holes were. Do spouses still do such things? Do other male presidential spouses? I never heard a woman say that she must get busy and polish her shoes. Do women just buy new ones and throw the scuffed or dirty ones in a closet?

These are the idle musings of a retired professor. Retirement does take some getting used to. I no longer have a lab but I can still collect data on topics that interest me, and I still can write an occasional journal article, book review, or obituary. I teach a seminar at the college, but the rest of my post-retirement life is pleasantly disorienting. And my life as a presidential spouse is also disorienting. What am I supposed to be doing besides polishing shoes? I have sought advice on this from other men in my position at meetings of college presidents. Most of the presidents are still male, but more and more spouses are male. A consensus seems to be emerging among us guy spouses that we don’t have much of a job description, and virtually no training for whatever it is we are expected to do.

Few of us are any good at the traditional activities of presidential spouses, most of whom are still women. Things like managing the presidential house are beyond most of us. Decorating the house, or arranging flowers, or managing elegant dinner parties are just not activities most male spouses are prepared to do. (And of course many of today's presidential spouses -- male and female -- have full-time careers that may limit their time for such activities.) We might project the wrong image to trustees, donors, and parents. Going to varsity sports events, being kindly and avuncular, and keeping a low profile are appropriate, and expected of us. Showing up at college gatherings when our spouses ask us to, looking clean, sober and well-pressed, all seem reasonable. Accompanying the president on trips when she asks me to also seems reasonable and appropriate, and can even be fun when the trips are to Florida or Arizona in the middle of a Minnesota winter. (Wealthy donors often live in those places.)

Like most busy professors before my retirement, I never really thought much about the lives of college or university presidents, much less their spouses. It has astonished me to discover just how busy a president’s life can be. When my wife staggers home with a bulging briefcase after her normal 12 hour day, having dinner ready for her seems like something I can do. So I cook dinners, because I want to help, especially on those rare and wonderful evenings when we are alone at home together. She rarely has breakfast with me, having left the house at the crack of dawn. Often she has two or three breakfasts before she arrives in her office – each with coffee and croissants. And yet she loves her job.

But what is my job? I teach one seminar (students receive credit, but I am unpaid) at the college, because I like students, and it keeps me in touch with “the literature” in my field of comparative psychology. I review articles and books for journals in my field. And I have just completed a book and found a publisher. But after 40 years these activities are like breathing. It’s hard to think of them as a job.

So one day I sat the president down and asked her point blank what she wants me to do as First Man. Her answer included the following:

1) Represent her at local functions. That means attending campus concerts, receptions, plays or gallery openings in her stead, or putting in appearances at intercollegiate sports events, even when I am not a fan of that activity. “Showing the flag”, as it is called in diplomatic circles, requires that people recognize the flag. Fortunately, students, visitors, and staff on campus are beginning to recognize me, and I wear an elegant little lapel pin that says “Ron Baenninger, Ph.D., Presidential Spouse” in case they don’t.

2) Having me drive her places, or pick her up, was high on her list. After a week of fundraising and meetings she likes to see my smiling face at the airport, rather than searching for a hired driver wearing a cardboard sign with her name scrawled on it. And fortunately she still likes having a driver who greets her (and says goodbye) with a kiss. Sometimes she sits in the back seat privately tapping on her ubiquitous Blackberry or laptop. If we are going to a function together I often receive instructions from the back seat: things like who will be there, and what conversation topics to fall back on, or which should be avoided.

3) Taking care of car matters has been part of a chauffeur’s job description since the early days of automobiles. Fortunately, I am a car guy anyway so I can enjoy tending to her SUV. Maybe someday I will be able to convince the college to buy her a more interesting car (perhaps something along the lines of a classic Packard Phaeton for me to tend). Servicing cars, keeping the air pressure up in the tires, checking the fuel, water, and oil levels, making sure there are maps in the map pockets and a blanket and a shovel in the trunk can be helpful, especially in Minnesota winters. I must be ready to carry her and the town’s mayor in the back seat for the Fourth of July parade.

4) Taking and picking up her dry cleaning. I never would have believed the amount of dry cleaning that a woman in the public eye generates. As a male professor it was OK for me to be a bit unkempt, and my students seemed happier when I looked comfortably rumpled. And even a male president can be allowed some slack, although most of them are much better dressed and groomed than the faculty. But female presidents feel they need lots of spotless clothes (preferably in fashion). Her trustees and big donors include a good many male and female executives who always wear carefully pressed clothes, and polished shoes.

5) Answering the door graciously, or at least politely. We live in a large new president’s house on campus so electricians, plumbers, catering people, house cleaning people, etc. are always coming and going through it. Our two large dogs, like most members of their species, believe their job is to protect us from people they do not know. Their greetings are often rude and noisy. Incidentally, I am not allowed to mow the lawn, maintain the grounds, cook for dinner parties, or fix things in the house, or even to clean the house or take out the trash. These things are left to the professionals. Poor me.

But beyond these routine things, what are male spouses to do with themselves? It is not simply a matter of reversing the roles. Traditionally, in American society men have been raised differently from women. The differences are becoming much less marked for our kids than they were for us, but the fact is that most men in the United States have not been raised to fill supporting roles. Men who are married to presidents (of colleges, or of corporations) must make some adjustments. We are not the central characters in public situations.

As boys, most men of my generation never learned to do “girl things”. As a consequence we are not very good at the practical or aesthetic details of maintaining an elegant home, or paying attention to all the important minutiae that underlie the public lives of presidents and their spouses. Things like making sure the silver is polished, as well as the shoes, and checking that napkins and table cloths are ironed and matching. Before her dinner parties I can recall my Mum putting out ashtrays and placing cigarettes in elegant silver receptacles from which smokers (a majority back in those days) would extract their smokes. The most she expected me to do was tidy up my own room. Surveys have shown that the only task husbands do almost universally is taking out the trash. In recent decades some of us also learned to do cooking, cleaning, shopping, looking after the kids, etc., but we reminded many people of the chimpanzee who typed out a novel -- nobody expected us to do such things well, and it was remarkable if we could do them at all.

But there are some things I must do for myself, if not for the president. Presidential spouses, whether male or female, must maintain their self-esteem while playing second fiddle. A spouse with his or her own career has a fairly easy time of it because they do not have to define a new role for themselves, but someone who no longer has a career of their own must redefine their role. Everybody needs to feel that they still have some importance, even if their mailbox no longer has much first class mail in it. My spouse, like most spouses, wants an autonomous, happy, energetic equal with whom to share a busy life. Figuring out how to do that is a challenge for every married couple.

That is a major reason I am learning to play the piano. Why did I go out and buy a 1965 Corvair convertible to work on? Why did I go dog sledding for a week at a lodge up in the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area of northern Minnesota? It is better for everyone if I have my own interests, being a “First Man” rather than a “Velcro Husband." I have not sunk to watching daytime TV regularly. I can walk the dogs, and ride my bicycle on the Lake Wobegon Trail (it actually runs right through town). And I can ruminate while I polish the presidential shoes.


Ronald Baenninger is professor emeritus of psychology at Temple University, and a visiting professor at the College of Saint Benedict.


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