NEW YORK — When Silda Wall Spitzer stood beside her husband in ashen-faced misery the other day as the governor made his brief apology in the prostitution scandal, she uttered not a word. Yet she launched a thousand conversations.
"Why is she standing there?" many women wondered. "Should she be? Would I be?"
And for many, who've seen a long line of wronged political spouses do the same, from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Dina Matos McGreevey to Suzanne Craig, the immediate answer was a resounding, "Hell, no."
"I watched her and I thought, 'Again, the wife is standing there,'" said Jessica Thorpe, a 38-year-old mother of three in Larchmont, N.Y. "And I had a visceral reaction. I just don't get it. Why does it always have to be that way in politics? What will she get out of standing there?"
The blogosphere was buzzing, too, with the same questions. "Why do they show up?" asked blogger Amy Ephron on huffingtonpost.com. She proposed her own fantasy: "I just want one of them — Hillary, Silda — to stand on the steps of the White House, the governor's mansion, and stamp their foot and say, 'And another thing, I'm keeping the house.'"
Yet many women also understood that Silda Spitzer was obviously in pain, and in the unforgiving glare of the public spotlight. So while Donna Webster, a product development executive in Boston, wished the New York governor had been forced to face the music alone, she also empathized with his wife's choice, which she assumed was for the sake of her three daughters.
"I've been thinking about this constantly. I cringed when I saw her next to him," said Webster, 59. "I think he should have taken it like a man — without her."
But, she added, "She was in crisis mode. She was like a mother bear protecting her cubs. When crisis hits, you do what you think you need to for your family. Later, you can step back and think about protecting yourself."
Amid the din, one of the most poignant voices defending Silda Spitzer was Matos McGreevey, who stood next to her husband, New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, in 2004 as he told the world he was gay, admitted an affair with a male aide and resigned.
"It's regretful that people are mocking her," Matos McGreevey said on CNN Monday night. "She's a private person who has a family that is experiencing excruciating pain right now."
She referred to others who'd also stood by their spouses at moments of deep humiliation — Clinton, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Suzanne Craig, the wife of Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, who was accused of soliciting sex in an airport bathroom.
"We all do it for personal reasons," she said. "I did it because he was my husband. I had always supported him. I loved him. I had a daughter ... I wanted her to know I was there for her father."
One therapist who deals with couples in crisis says most wronged women do want to at least try to work things out. "Your lives are intertwined, emotionally, financially and physically," said Gail Saltz, who practices in New York City. "And you share children. It's very complicated for any woman who finds her husband has betrayed her."
And the fact that the alleged betrayal was with a prostitute is a double-edged sword, says Saltz. On the one hand, "this isn't a woman that he fell in love with. On the other, many women would find the prostitution part particularly humiliating."
Joanna Coles, editor in chief of the women's magazine Marie Claire, feels that at least for the moment, Silda Spitzer had no choice but to stand publicly by her husband, for whom she gave up an active career as a corporate lawyer.
"People are very quick to judge her, but that's the deal that you make when one of you decides to give up your career so that the other can go all out for his," said Coles. "I think it would have been odd if she wasn't there. It's the pact that they made. She chose to be the wife of a governor, and she's done it very conscientiously, and very well."
Ashley Shapiro, a 24-year-old event planner in Miami, says her friends are split on the issue of whether Silda Spitzer and other wronged political spouses have been right to stand by their men. As for her, she thinks it's the only human thing to do.
"You don't turn your back on a loved one," Shapiro said. "You support them. You don't want your kids to see you abandoning their father in his time of need."
"You express your support publicly. Then you handle the rest privately. And all that," Shapiro says, "is none of our business."