by Leslie Morgan Steiner
I adore Sandra Bullock. Loved the movie The Blind Side, am entranced by her baby love for adopted son Louis, admire her as a generous-spirited, cool-headed career woman who doesn’t indulge in the all-too-common Hollywood games of being too thin, too vain, or overly papparazzi-obsessed.
But when People Magazine dropped through my mail slot Friday, I was stunned: Sandra Bullock is People’s Woman of the Year ?
Really? What for?
Then my beloved Washington Post’s gossip column, The Reliable Source , named Elizabeth Edwards its Person of the Year.
Again – yes, Elizabeth was amazing – but the most amazing person of the year?
Bullock and Edwards boast significant personal and professional accomplishments. But these achievements – Bullock’s Oscar nomination for The Blind Side, her role as a single mom, Edward’s two best-selling books and cancer fights  – do not top Hillary Clinton’s Secretary of State triumphs, Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai’s environmental battles , or the ceaseless devotion showed to America’s five million abused women by Lynn Rosenthal , President Obama’s first advisor on preventing violence against women.
There is only one prominent commonality shared by Sandra Bullock and Elizabeth Edwards: they both handled marital infidelity with surprising, awe-inspiring grace and dignity. Elizabeth, a brilliant campaigner, great beauty and devoted mom and wife, did not say one nasty word about husband John Edwards and his salacious affair with Rielle Hunter, even when their clandestine union produced a daughter, now two years old. Sandra Bullock similarly kept her head high when news of husband Jesse James’ infidelity splashed across every tabloid.
I respect these women and their decorum. But living through a man’s infidelity does not warrant Person or Woman of the Year status, in my mind. In fact, it’s dangerous to award woman an accolade for keeping silent in the face of degradation. Because it’s dangerous for women to keep silent.
My mother was a classy, elegant, Radcliffe and Columbia Teachers College graduate who I rarely remember raising her voice or wearing blue jeans. But when she and my father divorced after 32 years of myriad marital betrayals, she did not take the dignified route.
For almost two years as the legal disentanglement ground on, she vented bitterly to everyone in our extended family, left hideous obscenity-filled messages on his (and his new girlfriend’s) answering machine, and fought with jagged fingernails for a fair financial settlement. Which she eventually won.
At the time, her vitriol shocked me. Why not take the quiet, dignified route, Mom?
Now, having witnessed a few betrayals myself, I respect her anger. She used it as fuel to focus her rage on getting the economic security she deserved, on taking care of herself when my father clearly wanted to destroy her. She had sacrificed much for this man she loved: putting him through Harvard Law School, helping his corporate career, bearing five children with him, creating a home, in general sticking by him in ways he did not stick by her. She – and every betrayed spouse -- has the right to be furious, to expect to be treated with respect and grace by our legal system and our society. Why should a betrayed spouse be expected to respond to betrayal with dignity? What exactly would that have gotten my mother? I saw for myself that her subsequent years of financial freedom and self-respect carried more dignity than regal discretion and silence would have brought.
Infidelity is a compelling, complicated topic. Women (more so than men) are obsessed with adultery. Not with committing it – but avoiding it, keeping one’s man faithful, dodging being cheated, or surviving disloyalty. Infidelity sells books, magazines, and drives ratings on television talk shows. It’s natural enough that human beings want to spare ourselves this particular heartbreak and humiliation.
However, I don’t think much good comes from honoring women who’ve been through infidelity “gracefully.” By conferring martyr status on these brave women who kept their rage and heartbreak private, we dignify infidelity. We diminish the agony of being cheated upon. I’d rather see these women scream and rant and rage, and show the world (and men in particular) how devastating infidelity is. By honoring it, in a twisted, unintentional way, People Magazine, The Washington Post, Oprah, The View, Desperate Housewives and their combined audiences all collude to give men a pass, while also obliquely instructing women: this is the culturally acceptable way to bear up in the aftermath of the worst kind of deceit and betrayal. It pays to cast a suspicious eye on any instructions about how women are “supposed” to behave.
One day, I hope some woman gets an award for being human.