The latest issue of New York Magazine asks a question that, I think it's safe to say, hasn't been on many people's minds: Why is Ruth Madoff so hated? The question seems so obvious as to be rhetorical, but the article by Sheelah Kolhatkar suggests it's a little more complicated than we think. The most provocative explanation comes from none other than Gloria Steinem: Perhaps the public vitriol has less to do with Lady Madoff's seeming sense of entitlement to her husband's ill-gotten riches and more to do with her being a woman.
"It's the gender politics of the culture," Steinem tells the magazine. "It’s easier to blame the person with less power.” Why, she asks, isn't the same level of vitriol being directed at Ruth's sons -- after all, they "would be much more likely to be in cahoots, because they were in the same professional field." Steinem's answer to her own question: "They’re men, that’s why." And here I thought it was because their first reaction when their father privately revealed the scam to the family was to visit their lawyers, who immediately contacted the authorities, instead of hightailing it to the bank to make a $10 million withdrawal, as their mother did.
Don't get me wrong, the Madoff marriage certainly hits on some cultural sore spots -- namely, the resentment carried around by some high-earning men who are the sole-providers for their families. From that perspective, maybe Bernie was simply trying to keep up his end of an unspoken marital arrangement -- just like they are! -- but the poor schlub was brought down by his wife's excessive expectations. As Kolhatkar observes, "Ruth has come to represent the spoils of her husband's criminal activity: The lifestyle, the furs and jewelry, the fancy hair salon, the clinking glasses at parties, the trips around the world." Some of these assumptions may be sexist -- or at least packed full of gendered baggage -- but they hardly explain the public anger toward her.
Beyond the general repulsion toward the excesses of the outlandishly wealthy, particularly in this economy, and the suspicion that Ruth was aware on some level that her lavish lifestyle was being supported by what turned out to be the biggest financial fraud in history is a far more straightforward explanation: We've all heard about how Ruth allegedly made a colossal bank account withdrawal shortly before Bernie's planned public confession, conspired with him to ship $1 million-worth of their jewelry to relatives for safe keeping and then fought to retain a none-too-modest portion of her thieving hubby's plunder. Judging Mrs. Madoff on those terms isn't sexist, it's called treating her like a big girl and she had better get used to it.