John Edwards' trial over alleged campaign finance law violations continues, and there are the expected twists and turns with which to keep us both horrified and entertained. But let's take a step back. What does this trial, and its lead-up, say about women? Let's look, first, at the women involved.
Bunny Mellon. Bunny Mellon is 101 years old, an heiress who apparently saw something in the shiny-fancy boy politician Edwards, not knowing there was a snakier side beneath the veneer. Or maybe she did. We really don't know, only that she wanted to help him in his campaign, but also, nearly blind, was likely not the one actually writing those checks. Given her age and health, she is unable to attend the trial, and so we may never know. But given her age and health, it's impossible (and unseemly) to consider her much other than a victim, even if she was at all complicit in giving Edwards more money than is legally allowable for his campaign. And maybe she was: We do know she was a staunch supporter, even at the micro levels. From the New York Post: "Mellon said she was 'furious' about press reports mocking the well-coiffed candidate’s $400 barber bills. 'I see jealousies coming from somewhere in this news report,' she wrote. 'But it inspired me. From now on all hair cuts, etc. that are necessary important part of campaigns, please send the bills to me' via an intermediary in New York, Mellon wrote."
Elizabeth Edwards. Elizabeth Edwards is, of course, the good wife. She's the one who stood by her man during all this, or most of it, and she's the one who ended up dying of cancer in 2010, and the one who will always be thought of as the long-suffering political wife who should have ditched the jerk post-haste (they did eventually separate, but never legally divorced), or never have married him in the first place. But even after her death, Edwards is still using Elizabeth—perhaps it's easier that way. Via The New York Times, as Abbe Lowell, Edwards' lawyer, told the court, his client's elaborate plan to hide his affair with Hunter was all for Elizabeth, to protect his family, and "especially his wife, Elizabeth, who was battling cancer at the time." He did this for her.
Rielle Hunter. Hunter is the bad girl. She's the (allegedly) one who ruined Edwards' relationship with his wife; she's the one who put this all in motion. She's also charged with another female crime: Edwards called her a "crazy slut." She was apparently conniving, even gold-digging, demanding so much in finery that Mellon had to keep writing the checks. This (allegedly) because the men involved were so scared she'd reveal the truth about the affair, they were powerless to do anything else. With Hunter we get a woman who represents inherent complications: She's powerful yet damned, immoral, a sex object, essentially a prostitute who had to be paid to be kept in the lavish accommodations she felt she deserved. But people did what she wanted! Blame the mistress, as Abbe Lowell did: "John Edwards had a volatile mistress. He had to figure out a way to get funds to her.” Of course, there are two sides to every relationship, especially the ones that end badly. Hunter is also the mother of Edwards' daughter, and has stated that the affair was not just sex, but a mutual, committed love relationship—or so she says Edwards made her think. Meanwhile, according to recent testimony, it's possible that Andrew Young, who has been granted immunity for testifying at the trial, was the opportunist here, who just wanted to extract more money for Mellon so he could take a bigger cut—and maybe Hunter wasn't making particularly realistic threats to go public at all. Despite all the talk of "bromance," however, Young has not been called a gold-digger, exactly. Hunter, who may not have been the only female companion of Edwards, is one who gets the majority of the ire. She's on the witness list for defense and prosecution, but "it is unclear whether she will testify."
Cheri Young. Andrew Young's actual wife, with whom he has three children. Here's another one who stood by her man, even while he was claiming, to "save" his boss, that he'd impregnated Hunter. According to Young, Cheri was terrified of the plan, but went along anyway: Via ABC News, "'She thought it was crazy and was scared to death,' Young said today about his wife's initial reaction. Eventually she relented, he said, as Edwards insisted that it was not illegal and that no one was going to get in trouble." She is the woman who got fooled. Via Oprah, "'Later that night, Andrew and Cheri say they had a call with John and Rielle. '[John said] this was his chance. 'We've worked so hard. I'm so close,'" she says. 'Then Elizabeth—he laid that on us. That she was very ill. She was going to pass very soon. He couldn't let her know this'.....We didn't think about the consequences. America was fooled. We were all fooled.'"
Peripherally, we also have Edwards' mom, Bobbie, and daughter Cate, two women he's often photographed with on his way in and out of the courthouse, looking gentle and kindly and often like a doting son or father. Who knows what Edwards truly feels, but knowing what we do know about the man, it's unlikely that he's unaware of what he's doing here. He's "using" these women, or his lawyers are, to help make him look better, to boost his standing, to help us see that there is goodness in there. Maybe they're complicit in it. But we haven't heard a thing from them, have we?
There you go: Women who, one after another, are frail, dead, slutty (and therefore not credible), and married to someone with whom Edwards had a bromance, a man allegedly completely under his spell and possibly even in love with him. Not a one of these ladies is in any way a representation of female power. But maybe those are exactly the kinds of women that a guy like Edwards, and his cronies, prey upon?
Of course, this is a trial involving John Edwards, a man who had an affair and impregnated his mistress while his wife battled cancer. It's not as if we expect him to make woman-affirming choices in terms of who he bilks or uses. But as we take in the twists and turns of the rest of the trial, listen to the voicemails, wonder if Young or Edwards is lying, mount horror against the wrongdoing or sheer audacity of it all, let's take a moment to note the women: Cheri Young is expected to take the stand, but Elizabeth Edwards is dead; Bunny Mellon is blind and too frail to testify, and may not have known what was going on at all; Rielle Hunter, though she may testify, is already a witness who lacks credibility. It's almost Shakespearean, the levels of this tragedy; the women it has touched now tainted by scandal.
Still, while men may have orchestrated the bad things that happened here, at least some of these women may be at fault, too. Let's not paternalistically ignore them just because that fits into our ideas of what women should be.
Elizabeth Edwards photo by Danny Moloshok/Reuters.