THERE is this famous quotation that behind every great man is a woman. Then of course you are free to add your own flowery adjectives to the woman.
Basically, the essence of this quotation tries to encapsulate the supportive woman who is a pillar of strength and driving force behind her husband’s success.
These are the qualities that most first ladies are supposed to exhibit though I find some lacking as they exhibit some rather disturbing characteristics.
This week I’m going to narrow the conversation to the first ladies of politics.
What really is the role of a first lady? Until recently the French were debating the relevance of the first lady more so because she is not elected and assumes the role by virtue of being associated with her husband.
For the most part we see them as colourful accessories on the arms of their husbands with their eye-catching fashionable ensembles. Most have been criticised for their flamboyant and flashy lifestyles in the face of a largely impoverished electorate. Until recently many have jumped onto the campaign bandwagon to ensure their husbands are re-elected into office.
Although this role does not have a defined job description or clearly articulated in legislation, we have come to have expectations of these women who stand behind these powerful men.
If they are not endorsing charitable causes we expect them to champion social causes and facilitate landmark changes. Or at least this was the expectation I had of Patience Jonathan, the First Lady of Nigeria.
I thought she would take a more prominent role in addressing the plight of the kidnapped girls whose number varies from 223 to 276 depending on the source.
However, I was shocked and dismayed to hear that she had orchestrated the arrest of the leader of the “BringBackOurGirls” protest march, Naomi Mutu Nyadar, on the grounds that they were tarnishing her husband’s reputation.
We have to admire her for standing by her man, but strategically she could have enhanced his reputation by adopting the cause of the grief stricken mothers; not just in the eyes of Nigerians, but the world at large. This was followed by a rather dramatic exhibition when she addressed Parliament amidst histrionics and cries to God almighty.
I had to ask myself whether I was watching a bad Nollywood production on Africa Magic. For the most part we hold our first ladies with high esteem and admiration when they act with purpose.
However, such antics leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth; especially seeing as Patience has established a reputation for herself as an advocate for women’s rights and has been at the forefront of women’s empowerment. However, she is not the First Lady to court controversy.
Winnie Madikizela Mandela is probably one of the most controversial first ladies on the continent.
Despite being a prominent activist who kept the name of Nelson Mandela alive during the struggle, it is her behind-scenes activities that gained her prominence. She is still revered in some circles and is popularly known as “Mother of the Nation”. Though, reviled in some quarters for her roles in murder, torture and other gross human rights violations during the struggle, she stands out.
She went from being a militant freedom fighter to a first lady, despite it being a short lived stint that lasted two years, she remains one of the more controversial first ladies of her time.
Winnie is not the only First lady on the continent who gained infamy for being adulterous. Vera Chiluba (née Tembo) was accused of having an adulterous affair with a renowned businessman. It was purported this was the reason that led to her divorce from former President Frederick Chiluba.
Her divorce settlement raised eyebrows when she demanded a monetary sum of $2,5 billion, immovable assets and cattle and sheep. Then of course you have those first ladies who are known for their feisty and fiery tempers.
Lucy Muthoni Kibaki, the former First Lady of Kenya was another female who hogged the limelight for all the wrong reasons.
During her tenure as first lady from 2002 she gained pre-eminence for her turbulent temper and forceful nature. She was not abject to use physical force and often behaved like she was above the law on several occasions.
However, when she was not courting controversy she was an advocate for supporting the cause of society’s disabled and disadvantaged as well as the fight against HIV and Aids.
So besides being a centre of controversy I think for the most part we prefer it when our first ladies assume a role of advocacy for social concerns. Besides being coiffed and well groomed we have an expectation that the use their voices and positions of power for the betterment of the nation in a ladylike manner!
Sue Nyathi is the author of the novel The Polygamist. You can follow her on Twitter @SueNyathi