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Leah McLaren: Not much has changed for the housewives of 24 Sussex

Earlier this week, Twitter exploded with the news that Kim Cattrall had been mistaken for Margaret Trudeau in a photograph with Trudeau's late ex-husband, featured on the news program 60 Minutes. The mix-up was immediately put down to the fact that Americans, even reasonably clever ones, seem to know squat about our country.

Far more malodorous was the whiff of old-fashioned sexism at play – the unspoken implication being that any young woman on the arm of a powerful man is essentially interchangeable. Political wife, Porky's starlet – what's the difference, eh?

I felt a surge of hot indignation on behalf of Margaret Trudeau, whose startlingly candid interview in last week's Sunday Times magazine is still fresh in my mind. In it, she talks about how creepy it was to return (as she recently did) to 24 Sussex to go swimming with her grandchildren. She is the opposite of sentimental, calling the house "toxic," a place that was for her "the Crown Jewel of the federal penitentiary system."

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Her memories of her late husband aren't particularly rose-tinted either, especially for anyone who clings to the notion of Pierre Trudeau as the great Canadian liberalizer and champion of equal rights. He was, Margaret reminded us, a workaholic who believed in equality everywhere apart from in his own home. "He wanted a good wife, barefoot, pregnant, in the kitchen," she recalls. When Gloria Steinem sent her a copy of Ms. Magazine, PET was appalled. "'Oh my God, what kind of garbage are you reading?'" he said.

Today, we have a brand-new, shiny Trudeau power couple to recklessly idealize – all scrubbed and glowing and just as full of contagious optimism as Maggie and Pierre were back in 1971. And luckily for Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau (also a bit of a hippie in her own yoga-loving way) much has changed half a century on when it comes to the role of political wife.

Abortion is now completely decriminalized, gay people are free to marry, there is gender parity in cabinet and our Prime Minister's wife is no longer expected to be a pretty, well-dressed stay-at-home mother who does charity work and the occasional cover interview for Chatelaine.

Wait, no, that's wrong. In fact, nothing has changed at all.

This week, our spiffy new Trudeaus fly to Washington for their first state dinner with President Barack Obama and the first lady. Presumably, Michelle will share a few words of wisdom with Sophie on the subject of how to completely sublimate your own ego and professional ambitions for the better part of a decade in the prime of your working life because that's just what "the role" requires. Don't get me wrong, Michelle Obama is a fantastically impressive woman, her lengthy résumé speaks for itself. But I always found it slightly incongruous that her approval ratings soared during the first half of her husband's first term when she seemed to spend most of her time weeding communal gardens with inner-city school children in pink sweater sets and pearls.

Like Hillary Clinton before her, Michelle's only gaffes have come in the form of wry political observations that made me, personally, like her more. Remember when she had the audacity to admit she'd lacked pride in her country prior to her husband's election? The response was almost as bad as the repercussions from Clinton's cookie-baking comment, which dogs her to this day.

The good news is, on the rare occasion that a woman does manage to clamber up the greasy pole and into political office, she'll get to look forward to being pampered and complimented by her own devoted political husband. Oh wait, that's not right either. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's husband is a quantum chemist and tenured professor who doesn't do public appearances. Stephen Kinnock, the husband of former Danish Prime Minister Danish Helle Thorning-Schmidt, worked as a director at the World Economic Forum during his wife's time in office and is now a sitting British MP who visits his wife and daughters in Copenhagen on weekends. The couple insist they are still very much together, just equally devoted to their respective careers. Can you imagine such a scenario being publicly tolerated if the genders were reversed?

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I'm not criticizing these first men for continuing to pursue their professional lives, I'm just sad it's so seemingly impossible for their female counterparts to do the same despite the fact that – as our PM keeps reminding us – it's apparently 2016. Perhaps the answer is choice – that most women, even high-powered ones, will sacrifice their own professional goals for the sake of their family (especially when children are involved) when faced with the conundrum of how best to grapple with suddenly becoming the spouse of a world leader. It could be that. Or it could be a sexist double standard at work. Probably it's both.

The one truly marvellous thing all this thwarted female ambition has given rise to of late is the proliferation of a new narrative genre I like to think of as first lady revenge drama. Think of heroines like The Good Wife's Alicia Florrick and Claire Underwood in House of Cards. These are women who've spent so long suppressing their deepest desires for the sake of their husbands', that when they finally do unleash themselves on the world, all hell breaks loose.

Hillary Clinton's bid for the White House is a first lady revenge reality drama. Say what you will about her voting record, the idea of Clinton sitting in the same Oval Office where her husband got himself impeached with an adulterous blow job is almost too delicious to contemplate. If only for the sake of Margaret Trudeau, I really do hope she wins.

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About the Author

Leah McLaren is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She’s published two novels, The Continuity Girl (2007) and A Better Man (2015) both with HarperCollins Canada and Hachette in the USA. The first was a Canadian bestseller, though the second is actually much better. More


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