Elizabeth Edwards: Victorian Struggles, Modern Triumphs

Why Elizabeth Edwards’ death hits us so hard

By Susan Toepfer
Photograph: Photo by Janet Mayer / PR Photos

Why has the death of Elizabeth Edwards, 61, hit us so hard? Yes, our hearts go out to a woman who suffered so deeply while retaining her dignity. But there is more to our mourning than is suggested by her emotionally charged history, a series of events that are now part of our national narrative: losing her firstborn when he was only 16; her husband’s repellent web of adultery and deceit; her courageous, day-by-day battle with a terrifying disease; being forced to leave behind the two small children she worked so hard to conceive late in life. All of that draws our sympathy, but there’s this as well: Despite her Victorian struggles, she was a thoroughly modern woman, one who took full advantage of the opportunities before her while balancing a traditional role.


With an intellect as striking as her beauty, Mary Elizabeth Anania joined the women of her generation in knocking down doors. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she not only met her future husband, John Edwards, but also earned a law degree. By most accounts, she was his intellectual superior. But like many women of her transitional era, she left the newsworthy career to her husband while she pursued a quieter work-life that allowed her to tend to their two children, Wade and Cate.


When Wade died in a car crash in 1996, Elizabeth abandoned her legal career as she struggled to climb out of the hole he left behind. One of the most poignant passages in her 2006 memoir, Saving Graces, details how she broke down in a supermarket aisle, confronted by a shelf of his favorite soft drink. And yet, unlike a Victorian heroine, who would console herself by retreating to a darkened room with a lock of her beloved child’s hair, Elizabeth took the bold step of becoming a mother again. Emma Claire was born when she was 48; Jack when she was 50. Although she never provided details, Edwards surely must have relied on advanced infertility techniques.


They were a remarkable picture, the Edwards family, when John announced his first candidacy for president in 2004, with the lively younger set and their lovely older sister beaming by their parents’ side. But within months, as vice presidential candidate John campaigned with John Kerry, that perfect photo would blur: Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer.


She did not hide her disease—years before, First Lady Betty Ford had blasted through those post-Victorian barriers of modesty, shame and secrecy—but announced to the world what she now faced. And, in true 21st century style, she used her illness as a platform to help others, sharing the details of her treatment and campaigning for health reform.


Even when doctors decreed her cancer was “incurable but treatable,” Elizabeth battled on, encouraging her husband in a second presidential run. Many involved would call her the brains of the operation—a theory supported, perhaps, by the sniping later directed at her by unhappy campaign workers.


And then, of course, there was the final, awful obstacle in this 19th–century trail of tears: the humiliation of her husband’s affair with his campaign “videographer,” Rielle Hunter. At that point even Dickens might have stopped piling on. But no, Elizabeth, confronting death, would not be allowed to dismiss this as a one-time fling (although she tried, in print and on TV). The evidence of a larger betrayal arrived in the form of Frances Quinn Hunter, John’s illegitimate daughter. It would take Edwards months to admit the child was his.


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