Behind Every Great Man…

Quick! Is this a complimentary statement or an insult? “Behind every great man stands a great woman.” I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking about this phrase. How exactly do I feel about it?

While I haven’t tried this experiment, I conjecture that if you asked college students what they think of those words, most would dismiss it as a relic of patriarchy. After all, it reeks of a time when women weren’t expected to be great themselves but only support staff. A variation of the saying is , “Behind every successful man there is a woman,” but this only emphasizes the potential problem even more. (For the purpose of this conversation, I am going to focus on wives rather than mothers, not because I underestimate maternal influence but because that’s a different discussion.)

Reading a mesmerizing biography by Sonia Purnell; Clementine: the Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, started this train of thought. The book quickly reveals that Mrs. Churchill played a significantly more involved and complex role than that of supportive spouse. In World War I she organized and ran the establishment of canteens for soldiers, which to me sound similar to the American USO. In doing so, she supervised a huge staff and budget. In World War II she initiated a massive campaign to support the starving Russian people, acting not as a figurehead but as a hard-working and extraordinarily competent businesswoman.  As for supporting her husband’s pivotal leadership role in World War II, among other accomplishments she edited his speeches and, unlike Eleanor Roosevelt, was consulted on major decisions, including those involving classified military information.

However, other people could have occupied most of those roles. She uniquely supported, challenged, protected, coddled and fought with her husband through the vicissitudes of his career. It is entirely plausible that without Clementine, Churchill would have floundered and self-destructed, leaving him unable to save England and the world from Hitler. Yet, Ms. Purnell’s book is groundbreaking. While Winston Churchill is the subject of numerous biographies, his wife’s role, until now, occupied little space in the narrative.

Granted, Winston Churchill is a unique larger-than-life character. His eccentricities and flaws were matched by his massive strengths and far-reaching foresight. It isn’t surprising that he needed an incredibly talented and complex woman to provide ballast to his life. Furthermore, the epic battle  of good against evil in the 1930s and 1940s provided a dramatic, world-shaking backdrop to his life.

The Churchill’s marriage was, like the individual lives of the two spouses, fiery, tempestuous and strong. England benefited while their children did not. While I don’t view it as an ideal role model for marriage, and in fact Mrs. Churchill suffered physically and emotionally from the stress of living with such a difficult man, it is arguable that Winston Churchill’s greatness and the defeat of Nazism is a credit to his marriage as much as to his own persona.

Clementine Churchill was greatly overshadowed by Winston, exemplifying the sentence with which I started this Musing. Yet, I think she just as aptly represents the phrase in Genesis claiming Eve’s creation as an ‘ezer k’negdo,’ literally, ‘a helper as if she was opposite him (Adam)’. Not a mindless yes-woman but someone who helps to bring out the best in her husband by completely being on his side, yet skillfully exposing him (sometimes forcefully) to different perspectives, emotions and ideas.

Our society currently devalues marriage and its unique partnership paradigm. Could it be that our modern insistence that the individual is more important than the couple and that wives should tread their own independent paths make it less likely that our society will produce either great men or great women? Is there a happy medium?

50 thoughts on “Behind Every Great Man…”

  1. Until recently I felt this idiom was non-sexist until I came across the modern form of it : “Behind every successful woman is herself.”

    I cannot help but feel repulsed anytime I hear “behind every man…” as it now holds a very feminist slant that men are incapable of holding their own while women can and more. As long as we feed this to our boys, they’ll set low expectations for themselves and expect women to fill in the gap.

    1. Wow, I had not heard that reworking of the adage. It is ridiculous, of course. There is great irony that those who say, “Behind every successful woman is herself,” are probably the same people who liked it when President Obama said, “You didn’t build that.” We have already lost the use of so many words that have had their meaning hijacked – think of the words gay and choice. I do believe there is a war on men, but I’m not ready to give the power to extremists by stopping to use a saying that has value.

  2. Clementine Churchill may simply have lived the philosophy that “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” (Harry Truman)
    It is, indeed, truly sad that too many on this earth have devalued the holiness of matrimony to the point of rejecting it outright, rather than embracing ancient Jewish wisdom as you teach or the Latter-day Saints proclaim in The Family: A Proclamation to the World. For those teachings are the happy medium of which you ask.
    Thank you for your thoughts and writing.

    1. Lloyd – that’s an interesting idea. President Lincoln, I believe touted that advice as well. Clementine didn’t hide her activities, but her prime accomplishment and hardest job was being Mrs. Churchill.

  3. Sorry. I missed the portion talking about why you were discussing wives. I didn’t mean to insinuate that you were leaving them out. I loved your article and that situation just came to my mind as I was reading it. Loved your thoughts.

    1. I’m glad you shared that thought, Rebecca. We diminish motherhood terribly in our culture while paying lip service to it and driving mothers crazy with ‘expert’ advice.

  4. Someone put me down once for being a stay at home Mother and said that I wasn’t contributing to the world or to my family members well being because I wasn’t working outside the home and bringing in extra income. I know there are many cases where women have to work or really enjoy working and I support their right to do so. But I believe the same should be said for women who choose to stay at home. Anyway, I started feeling depressed and one day I was talking to a friend, and spiritual leader, about it. And she said something that to this day has stuck with me, “You are doing a very important job. God doesn’t call us all to be a Moses. Sometimes he calls us to be the Mother of a Moses.” So many times the woman standing behind the great man is his Mother.

    1. I love your friend and spiritual leader’s reply. Interestingly, both Winston and Clementine Churchill severely lacked mothering when they were growing up. (They were also pretty poor parents themselves.)

  5. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

    I can only say ‘amen’ Mark,
    great that you recognized the caliber of the woman God blessed you with. many men never do.

    1. The scriptures say that the two shall become one. Among other things this seems to mean that the success of one partner is in fact the success of the other as well.

  6. Sadly, I have a daughter suffering from the “California affliction” where she thinks that marriage leads to codependence. She has divorced and is now living with a man that has a similar personality to her ex husband… I’m trying to explain the difference between “codependence” and interdependence… so any articles you may write that will help me find words that can show my daughter that she’ll have better luck with men that are supportive, willing to work, and have a degree of ambition are appreciated…

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      How terribly painful it is, Art,
      when a dad can’t make his daughter’s hurt go away. I have dealt with the topic to which you allude several times in the podcast here: You’ll probably recognize the relevant episode from the description.
      Hope it helps.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Anne–
      I am hesitantly answering for Susan when I say that I am pretty sure she knew that Lady Randolph Churchill, the former Jennie Jerome, was born in Brooklyn not very far from where Susan herself was born. There the similarities end. Susan is a fantastic mom and all her kids seek her out for advice and company.

  7. My spouse is a Clementine type, I rarely admit this but she is actually quite a bit smarter than I am. I am a conservative and a type-A chloric personality, (my way or the highway). It has been a bumpy road for us until one day I heard her say, “Now look buster!” We began to engage in lengthy conversations where she showed me a side of myself that I wasn’t aware of. We men have a lot of learned behaviors that aren’t always complementary to our marriages. That “Look Buster” moment was a life changer for me when I had to admit that my dear spouse and life helper had pinpointed a trait that had to be purged out of my life. She doesn’t march in protest movements or complain about a women’s lot in life, she lives life as God intended her to, and she’s made a better man of me because of it.

  8. Would it hurt to say, “Along side every great wife is a great husband.”?

    Your thoughts are appreciated.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      It wouldn’t hurt at all, Mike, but I don’t think it is correct. I do think it is rather true to say the conventional behind every great….etc. But your formulation is belied by the many couples that I know of a very mediocre husband married to an outstanding wife. It is far rarer, in my experience, to find a fantastically accomplished man with an unimpressive wife. There are many reasons for this and I’ll talk about them on the podcast. Thanks for writing

        1. I listened to the most recent podcast, “Why Any Country With Too Many Low Class People Is Doomed”. Did you address the issue there and I missed it?

          Continued Blessings,

          1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

            Yes, Mike,
            I think I did. The point was that low class is not the same as poor–low class is people who think only of the present and clearly a country cannot survive if too many in the population think only of the present. If past and future don’t matter, neither do honor and duty. The consequences of losing those are dire.

  9. A grand idea for a Musing! Like you, I am quite convinced that Mrs. Churchill does not receive enough credit for supporting her husband and for rising to the occasion by contributing to the world by virtue of her unique vantage point as the spouse of a leader prominent on the world stage.

    But your Musing set me up for a fine Churchill anecdote which I must share. Anyway, Sir Winston was reportedly a guest at one of the interminable parties of state, politics or whatever, when a woman in a foul temper came up to him and reproached him perhaps for one of his unpopular decisions of state, spouting bile in his face: ‘Sir, if you were my husband, I would poison your tea!’ Without skipping a beat, Sir Winston retorted calmly: ‘Yes, Madam, and if YOU were my wife I would gladly drink it.’

    Apocryphal? I rather hope not… Such an apt remark put a bilious detractor soundly in her place, but also by sincere twist, was a left-handed tribute to his Clementine. Nobody’s fool, Sir Winston knew exactly what a fine wife he had, and had a good idea of his indebtedness to her. If I am no Winston Churchill, I am certainly a much better man because of the influence of my dear wife. And I also would venture to say, anti-patriarchal feminism be squelched, that behind every successful Rabbi is a wonderful Susan.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear James–
      Apropos of your closing sentence, I have to tell you something. One time I was in an audience when the speaker warmly and graciously complimented me for whatever he perceived my achievements to have been. Susan was present and when he mentioned my name for the third time without mentioning Susan, I felt I had to say something. So, as awkward as it was for me in the audience to call out to the speaker on the stage, I did and apologized for interrupting him. I explained that I genuinely knew that my accomplishments that he was praising would never have come to pass were I not married to Susan. I again apologized and explained that his omitting Susan’s name was too conspicuous for me to ignore.
      As a Churchill enthusiast, and having come to know him through his speeches ( At considerable cost for a young Bible school student, I made it my business to attend Sir Winston’s funeral in London in early 1965) I must tell you that I am pretty sure that story never happened. Many of the incredible anecdotes about Churchill have been validated by parties present. But this one never has been confirmed. Also, apparently it was an old joke already and Churchill was very original. I just am sure he would never have picked up a music-hall line and passed it off as his own. Never. But still a good story.

        1. James, I actually have a thesis that that ‘Henny Youngman/Don Rickles etc., era of jokes was one of the signs that things were sadly off in America re husbands and wives. I think it helped lead to the wave of feminism under which we are still suffering.

      1. I appreciate both your teachings and musings. I think it’s wonderful, Rabbi Lapin, how you took the opportunity to bring honor to your wife at that time. It brought to mind I Peter 3:7. After all, if the husband doesn’t ever give his wife honor she may never be noticed which would be quite sad. I think even a small mention before others, such as a wonderful meal she made, can go a long way with a woman.

        1. Lauren, I was shocked when my husband spoke out as it was completely not in character for him to interrupt a speaker. However, I cannot tell you how much I appreciated it. Even more, the women in the audience who were familiar with the history appreciated it just as much. I agree with you that a woman needs to be validated and honored by her husband and children and if she isn’t, her need to find that honor outside the home increases.

          1. Oh my, Susan, I wasn’t even thinking about the ‘finding it elsewhere’ part. It’s interesting how the lack of (that) one seemingly small thing can potentially open up a new box of problems.

  10. Another aspect of the analysis of this saying is from the man’s perspective; is it necessary for a man to have a woman in his life to meet the standard of ‘greatness?’ What of those who have tried their whole life but never seemed to find the right woman in their life? Or those of us who briefly had someone who ‘balanced’ us, accepted us for who we were and supported us and now we’ve lost (in my case to cancer)? Does the greatness leave when we lose that person? What if we feel we never really achieved that greatness, even when she was at our side?
    My thoughts are we should be thankful for God’s blessings, however brief they may have been, to have had someone special to share our life. His intentions and plans for us are not always revealed to us in our time here on earth. Something very small or (in our eyes) insignificant in our lives may ultimately have been quite instrumental in God’s great plan for us.
    I appreciate both Susan & Rabbi’s teachings. Thank you!

    1. James, I quickly realized that I had to limit my topic but some of what you raised were issues I did some thinking on as well, such as the definition of greatness. I’m sorry that you had only a brief time with your other half. Your attitude of counting your blessings is admirable. May you find support and affection in new places.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear James–
      We’re not saying that for a man to reach some objective level of greatness (even assuming such a thing exists and could be defined) he needs a woman in his life. What we are saying is that in order to reach his true potential, he does need a wife. Regarding your question about men who “have tried their whole life but never seemed to find the right woman” here’s what we have to say. Such men failed because they spent their whole lives trying to find “the right woman” instead of investing serious time and effort in becoming the right man. We’ve seldom seen exceptions to this rule.

  11. Enjoyed this musing, and being a huge biography lover, I look forward to reading Mrs. Churchill’s! Somewhere, as a society, we’ve managed to lose our way regarding family and marriage importance. Guess I’m just old school on this one!

  12. I absolutely agree that this is a small part of our never ending search for understanding the larger picture. Perhaps the struggle bonds the spirits in us even tighter than the affection does? We certainly are complex.
    Thank you both for your time and your thoughts and for exposing me to a bigger world.

    1. Living with a clone wouldn’t lead us to much growth, would it Lisa. You put it very well.

  13. A partnership is the most successful when the strength’s of both the man and woman are fully invested. We seem to have trouble with this because our culture will not recognize that the sexes have different strengths and that those differences are good. Thanks for your thoughts , always so balanced. Balance, another thing our culture has trouble with. And thanks for the suggestion for my next book club selection.

    1. Let me know how you like it, Shira. I found the book fascinating. You’re so right, of course, that our culture wants both sexes to be the same which ignores the different strengths and weaknesses.

  14. Maybe a more accurate or timely approach to this topic should be stated: “Along side of every successful man is a woman”.
    Especially as this topic relates specifically to a married couple, we should be reminded that their union is a partnership.
    In essence I do think that as the saying goes, “BEHIND every man…” is a supposition that women lurk in the shadows of their husband’s success.

    Thank you Susan. I love you and Rabbis lessons.

    Joan Diana

    1. Joan Diana, That is exactly why I went back to Genesis where woman is created from man’s side (a better translation than rib from the Hebrew) and is a ‘helpmeet opposite him,” not behind him.

      1. “Behind” is a more accurate description of the Churchill. If you listen to the words of the song “Wind Beneath My Wings” it is the same concept. Mrs. Churchill was content to see him shine while she had to know she was indespensible. In my mind it is an incredible and merited compliment to women.
        Is the opposite true? Behind every man who fails is there a woman who fails?
        As in Genesis
        Along side could apply in other cases like Sonny and Cher 🙂

        1. There are quotes which make clear that Winston Churchill also knew that his wife was indispensable. This doesn’t strike me as true: Behind every man who fails there is a woman who fails, (even substituting most for every which is the only way any of the sentences can even be discussed.) But it is interesting to play around with the variations and see what rings true and what doesn’t. The next biography – actually I think it’s an autobiography – I hope to read is by Ariel and Will Durant. I’m curious to see what I find there.

    2. Prov. 31 Prompts all. there seen is the woman doing what men dream of, and then again, there is the Purim angle. Good reputation and doing worthy task.

    3. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      I carefully read your comment, Joan Diana,
      and I remember the intense discomfort that Roselynn Carter caused by frequently attending her husband’s cabinet meetings in the White House and often commenting before her husband or other cabinet officials had weighed in. People felt that she was diminishing the president by her forward conduct. Have you ever been at a gathering where some man’s wife is constantly interrupting him or contradicting him. We don’t mind if at a business meeting a man’s business partner does that. But we do when it’s his wife. It just feels weird and uncomfortable. I think that may be what the word “behind” suggests. Thanks for writing

      1. Rabbi, isn’t married couples suppose to be considered as one? If so, were do people come up with this idea of (a) partnership? A partnership isn’t the same as a marriage and it never will be. A buisness partner isn’t physically nor spiritually connected to his partner. They simply have a contract which can be disolved at anytime. You don’t lose yourself if he or she walks away. But if a part of your body is ripped away you have a serious problem.

        In my opinion, I think the problem in marriage stems from Gensis 3:16, where God gives woman the curse she must bear for her disobedience. Modern day women simply, refuse to have men as the leadership in their homes, which is strange because women don’t seem to have a problem with taken orders from their male bosses.

        God establish leadership roles to keep harmony in the world. Where ever you find people who have a disregard for authority you will find chaos, disrespect for parents, disobedience to the laws of the land, a lack of love and respect for their neighbors. However, where ever you find respect for the authority there is peace, kindness and contentment. I’ve been a leader and the head of my household and I know the one thing both need is for those under their authority to obey them. Authority isn’t a license to mistreat someone but to keep everything in balance.

        There is a proverb, which says a woman tears down her own home with her own hands.

        1. You’re absolutely right, Marie, that marriage is a covenant, not a partnership in terms of being a contractual, materialistic agreement. But I think the word can also have the implication of working together, so I’d be loathe to discard it.

      2. Very grateful, RDL. I have never felt the same since I started following you and reading your materials. I just purchased your book “Business secrets from the Bible ” I am almost done with the “thought shall prosper”. Please RDL,it is difficult getting your books especially in ghana. I need your CDs, thought tools and other materials of your own to buy.

        Thank you.

        Kind regards

        Anafo Abotiyire Solomon .

  15. Lorikennedy@gmail

    Bless You. You and Rabbi always show me new ways to become a better child of God.

    1. I appreciate your words, Lori, though I see this Musing in particular as one piece of trying to understand a larger picture.

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