The plight of the economist’s wife
As a wife, I am always interested in other wives. So I couldn’t resist reading an email that came in this week from Columbia University professor Myrna Weissman calling on Nobel laureates and “intellectual leaders” to write to President Obama and urge him to appoint our Columbia colleague Jeffrey Sachs to the position of president of the World Bank.
In her letter she argues that:
Professor Sachs has been a trusted advisor to dozens of heads of state for two decades, and is the foremost expert on tackling poverty and promoting sustainable development in a globalized world. His vision for the World Bank is one the world desperately needs — making the World Bank the nexus of a global network of government, the private sector, academia, science, and civil society, working together to deploy innovative technologies and solutions for development. He has an astonishing track record of helping to scale up the fight for public health, disease control, food production, and access to basic lifesaving services such as clean water, always using a science-based approach, and consistently getting powerful results when the ideas are actually carried out (such as the scale-up of malaria control in the past decade).
Signing off as the “Widow of Marshall Nirenberg, Nobel Laureate 1968,” Professor Weissman adds: “I know that Marshall would have been a supporter as well and he often would sign letters for issues he felt strongly about.”
The informed reader seeing this letter would immediately think of the important questions of economic development, how to end world poverty and the sustainability of Professor Sachs’s Millennium Villages project. I, of course, thought about wives and what role they have to play in the pressing debates that preoccupy their husbands. My mind drifted to famous spouses: Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Callista Gingrich, Denis Thatcher and Elaine Wolfensohn, wife of former World Bank President James Wolfensohn. All have had to find a way to balance their interests with those of their powerful spouse and to carve a niche for themselves.
It’s not easy. Some have been treated with derision and scorn. Others, like Denis Thatcher, have been praised for keeping a low profile and quietly supporting their partners. Some wives cultivate an interest in causes that are “acceptable” for women, such as education, obesity or, in the case of Sarah Brown, wife of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, maternal mortality.
Wives who don’t take on a worthy cause are criticized as superficial or shopaholics. Wives who do weigh in on their husband’s work are often portrayed as meddlesome or manipulative. Wives who take on a cause are sometimes resented or criticized for being dilettantes pretending to have expertise. I pondered this dilemma for a few days and finally decided that the willingness of Jeff Sachs to tell the world he wants the job of World Bank president is brave, but that Professor Weissman’s decision to step up publicly to support Sachs and invoke the name of her husband while doing so was braver still.
PHOTO: Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs of Columbia University speaks about potential geopolitical implications of the financial crisis at a panel discussion hosted by the Economist magazine at Pace University in New York, October 16, 2009. REUTERS/Nicholas Roberts