Betty Draper or Virginia Thomas: Who's the More Awful Wife?
The unbelievable true story of Virginia Thomas's call to Anita Hill -- soliciting an apology from the woman who once accused her husband (and U.S. Supreme Court justice) Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment -- has sent shockwaves throughout America's political culture. Here at Movieline HQ, it also kind of reminded us of someone.
If anyone's had a worse week than Mrs. Thomas, it would probably be Betty Draper Francis. Of course, that's assuming neither woman has a backlog of canny, Machiavellian ambitions motivating their behavior -- a pretty big assumption, really, when we look at the historical record. Doing so naturally raises the question: Which woman is the more patently awful wife? Let's analyze:
On the one hand we've got Elizabeth "Betty" Hofstadt Francis (née Draper) -- scion of upper-middle class Pennsylvania privilege, erstwhile model, equestrian enthusiast and protector of her late, dementia-addled father's legacy. (Bobby Draper gets the WWI veteran's Hun helmet, though.) On the other we've got Virginia "Ginni" Lamp Thomas, the youngest of four children born to middle-class conservative parents in Omaha, Neb. Not much is known about either woman's formative years, though Ginni freely admits having gone to a public high school, and Betty lies about having belonged to a sorority at Bryn Mawr -- a college without sororities. (Or at least Mad Men's writers lied about it, but since we blame Betty for everything else, we might as well blame her for this.) EDGE: Betty
Despite her brittleness and bird-shooting proclivities, Betty is something of a wounded optimist at heart. Having stoically surrendered her modeling dreams not once but twice (both times to the strictures of marriage and motherhood), she was perhaps most shaken by the assassination of President Kennedy, followed soon after by the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. "What the hell is going on?" she cried, implying an incredulity at the fall of the Utopia she was promised. You couldn't really say the same thing for Ginni, who notoriously fled the Lifespring
cult self-awareness organization in 1985 after rejecting its tendencies toward "mind-control." Utopia instead arrived in her 1987 marriage to Thomas -- an event institutionalizing one of the country's most noteworthy interracial relationships of any political stripe. Contrast this to Betty, who shrugged off the Civil Rights Movement to her black nanny's face: "Maybe it's not time." Then again, as an attorney for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1988, Ginni opposed the Family and Medical Leave Act on grounds that it compromised private industry. It eventually passed -- five years later under Bill Clinton. EDGE: Even
· Political Agenda
It's altogether possible that if Betty Draper were real, she'd be an embittered Rockefeller widow who joined the Tea Party at the outset. After all, we know from her efforts on behalf of the Tarrytown Junior League that she is a politically engaged woman with specific goals (i.e. save the reservoir) and the wily resources to accomplish them. Nevertheless, her marriage to Henry Francis sprung more from idealism (and not just a little convenience) than ideology. No one would argue Ginni Thomas didn't marry for love ("Once I got to know him, I was like a pool of butter," she told her husband's biographer), but it takes a special kind of political power couple to conceivably impact all three branches of federal government.
And don't think Ginni's forgotten about her interests and allies in opposing universal heath care; she's back on the stump this week calling President Obama's health-care legislation "unconstitutional." Ahem, Mrs. Thomas! Your husband will be the judge of that. EDGE: Ginni
Oh, please. Betty Draper can't go anywhere without drawing Grace Kelly comparisons. Ginni Thomas looks like a UPS truck full of Lane Bryant shipments crashed into a strip-mall beauty salon. EDGE: Ginni
· Household Influence
Oh, please -- it's not even close. Having learned Betty fired Carla, Henry bellowed at his wife, "No one's ever on your side!" She's tumbled so far backward on the likability scale she's almost cycled back to being sympathetic. Ginni, meanwhile, is in emotional, intellectual and philosophical lockstep with Clarence Thomas from their Constitution-literalism to their loathing of the media -- though I imagine she, too, might have found her husband drinking on the couch yesterday when she came home, at least a little indignant that about the sh*tstorm Ginni created. He'll get over it (if he hasn't already). EDGE: Ginni
And this is closer than it probably seems. I mean, Ginni Thomas called Anita Hill out of the blue and asked for an apology. "What was she thinking?" is the common question, often rhetorically, though at least one pundit offers a perfectly logical answer:
Funny coincidence: the very morning of the voicemail, the New York Times published "Activism of Thomas's Wife Could Raise Judicial Issues," which asks whether it isn't kind of problematic for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice's wife to start a Tea Party-linked organization "dedicated to opposing what she characterizes as the leftist 'tyranny' of President Obama and Democrats in Congress" -- and then go dialing for donors in her capacity as its leader. It's reasonable to expect that individuals and corporations might throw money at the spouse of someone so influential -- or that she might reveal those names to him. But the organization's 501©(4) nonprofit tax status allows it to conceal its funding sources. So there's no telling who first helped Liberty Central open its doors in late 2009 with two gifts of $500,000 and $50,000, or who's paying Thomas's salary now -- in short, whether there's a potential conflict of interest.
In other words, Ginni sought a distraction -- one, it should be added, that she'd already sought previously with far less resonant consequences. The fact that it took Hill more than a week to disclose Ginni's call suggests she was only half-successful (if, in fact, that distraction motivated her in the first place), but the fact that we're talking about Ginni's motivations at all -- and her justification in following them -- implies that the potential for calculation is the end that justifies the means. Clarence Thomas is untouchable, right? Thus Ginni Thomas is untouchable.
But despite Don, Henry, Sally, Glen and everybody else's recriminations, Betty is essentially untouchable as well. She is nothing if not consistent -- a social being in perpetual pursuit of moral equilibrium. How she achieves it -- shooting her neighbor's birds, pursuing a one-night stand, pursuing Henry's political influence, breaking into Don's desk (and finding the key does not excuse it), naming her baby Gene, politicking Sally with a Barbie doll, firing Carla... These are the actions of a woman losing, leveraging and consolidating her power all at once. The fact that they involve her family (and have nothing to do with Washington, where such behavior is rational, even expected) makes them all the more extreme. I can only imagine the call she'll be placing to Don's eventual wife Megan in 20 years. EDGE: Betty
· Condescending Phone Etiquette
As ill-advised, outlandish and effed-up as Ginni's voicemail for Hill was, you can't fault her eloquence -- a true high point in the articulation of D.C. passive-aggression. Betty's general terseness doesn't allow for much ambiguity; though, again, give her 20 years and we'll see if she can catch up. EDGE: Ginni
The Thomases do not have children. Betty threatened to cut her daughter's onanizing little fingers off. EDGE: Betty
Oh, yeah -- Betty is a TV character and Virginia Thomas actually exists to pull crap like this right before the midterm elections. EDGE: Ginni
Congratulations, Virginia Thomas! You are officially more awful than Betty Draper. There is a pink fainting couch in your future, no doubt.