The song belonged to Frank Sinatra. Those exultant lyrics, “I did it my way,” never made it past the lips of Ella Fitzgerald. “My Way” could be the ancillary national anthem of the American male. Early on, we females were taught that his way not only took precedence over her way, but that it was indubitably the better way.

“My way” has always been the way of our political culture, especially of our Commanders in Chief. The way of First Ladies and wives of presidential candidates? To serve the nation by serving their husbands’ interests. The role of these women was to praise their mens’ vision, offer tea or cocktails or seven-course meals to those prominent enough to merit refreshment (while serving up unremitting smiles to less eminent others), and stand as a paragons of womanhood by performing works so utterly good only Beelzebub would object: Ellen Axson Wilson, Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, sought to ameliorate slum conditions in black neighborhoods in Washington by bringing the sad conditions to the attention of society dames and members of Congress; Jacqueline Kennedy transformed a tatty White House into a showplace; Joan Mondale touted the glory of American crafts; Barbara Bush was, and still is, a tireless champion of literacy.

Even First Ladies of uncommon intellect let it be his way, cogitating primarily for their husbands’ benefit rather than for their own. In 1776, Abigail Adams did indeed write to John: “…in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” Nevertheless, as First Lady, Abigail did not march at the head of some Federalist equivalent of Take Back the Night. No, she served as John’s hostess, and women didn’t get emancipated until one hundred forty-four years and God only knows how many state dinners later. Eleanor Roosevelt became a grand humanitarian, but for many years, her work on the New York State Democratic Committee and, later, her efforts to promote the New Deal were for the sake of Franklin’s career; she went abroad in the land as the eyes and ears of her wheelchair-bound husband. And while attorney Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to have a both a soaring intellect and extravagant energy, until recently her gifts were diverted to nurturing the rise — and lessening the decline — of her husband’s fortunes.

Which leads us to the wives of the current top contenders for the office of president. Laura Bush, so soft-spoken she has yet to make an impression beyond the borders of Texas, is a former teacher and librarian. Predictably, she has devoted her altruistic energies toward child welfare and literacy.

Cindy McCain, who has a Master’s degree in special education, was a champion of medical aid to third world countries during the eighties, founding the Arizona Voluntary Medical Team. In the mid-nineties, a scandal broke during which she admitted stealing Percocet, an addictive painkiller, from the Medical Team and downing up to twenty pills a day. She escaped prosecution by going for treatment for her habit and by making financial restitution. But since that time, she has kept a relatively low profile except to acknowledge, in the manner of other First Ladies and Ladies-in-waiting, like Betty Ford, Kitty Dukakis and Joy Dirksen Baker, that she was a victim of an illness and/or a dependency. In presidential campaigns, wives are encouraged to display any vulnerability not merely to offer hope to fellow sufferers and to satisfy America’s inexhaustible passion for weepy tales of travail and triumph, but also to demonstrate how steadfast their husbands are in times of crisis.)

Following what was apparently a too-close encounter with the Purple Rain soundtrack in the 1980s, Tipper Gore received kudos from the family values set (as well as censure from First Amendment advocates) for her sponsorship of a rating system for record lyrics. This time around, she’s embracing a less contentious cause — mental health — and has gone public about being a victim depression. Her personal style, however, is distinctly upbeat if not downright buoyant, and she is an effective speaker on her husband’s behalf. Like Laura Bush and Cindy McCain and nearly all the First Ladies who came before, her life is devoted to helping her man do it his way.

And then there is Bill Bradley’s wife, Dr. Ernestine Schlant, Professor of Germanic and Comparative Literature at Montclair State University in New Jersey, author of a splendidly cogent (and well-reviewed) book of literary criticism, The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust. At first glance, campaigning for her husband in New Hampshire, she appears to be merely another presidential candidate’s wife, albeit a cerebral one. Her personal plight was breast cancer. In 1992, she was hit with the disease, then successfully treated with a mastectomy and chemotherapy. Besides talking about Bill Bradley, she is an engaging and effective speaker about this health issue.

Except a closer look at Ernestine Bradley, as she is referred to when in campaign mode, reveals that she is more than simply a politician’s wife with a substantive career of her own. She is that rara avis, the creature the early feminists predicted was possible, a woman who truly has done it her way.

She was born sixty-four years ago in Passau, Germany. Early on, she noted in a recent interview at Bradley campaign headquarters in Manchester, New Hampshire, she knew she wanted to come to America. She did not wait for fate to arrange for her ticket. After studying languages in an institute for interpreters and translators, she found herself a job as a flight attendant for Pan Am in 1957, which not only got her to this country, but also got her green card. She met a physician, Robert Schlant, married him in 1958 and moved to Atlanta. The following year, had a daughter, Stephanie. The year after that, she received her undergraduate degree in Romance Languages from Emory, then continued on at that university to earn her M.A. in 1961 and her Ph.D. in 1965.

By then her marriage was over and Ernestine Schlant moved to Long Island to teach at SUNY Stony Brook. Her six-year-old daughter remained in Georgia. “Her father had a secure and stable income,” she explained succinctly, as if the notion of child support to mitigate income disparity had not yet been divined. Instead she explained that whenever she could manage it during the school year, every couple of weeks, she would visit her daughter. As Stephanie grew older, she came north to spend time with her mother. “Also, as a teacher you had Christmas vacation, you had spring break, you had the whole summer so that really it wasn’t like the child vanished out of my life.”

Since Ernestine and Bill Bradley’s daughter Theresa Anne went to live with her father in Washington when she was ten years old while her mother remained in New Jersey pursuing her academic career, Ernestine Bradley’s vision of motherhood seems to be both traditionally feminist (parents sharing equally in the raising of children) and unconventional (few mothers wind up being the nonresident parent twice). Yet she appears utterly at ease with her choices, unconcerned with their nonconformity. “Love and love bonds can really overcome distance. And that’s certainly how we all feel about it.” Definitely her way.

But clearly, her way was his too. When Bill Bradley was in Washington, there was no question that his wife would remain in New Jersey. She observes: “There was never any pressure or even any expressed desire that I should come to Washington. This is what you feel, this is what you have to do. So there was a total respect for me.”

Nonetheless, her way and his may seem jarring to many Americans, and not merely those of the far right who extol the stay-at-home “mom” in language only slightly less reverent than that praising the madonna. (Conservatives, oddly, appear to have lost all memory of the word “mother.”) While intellectually easy to grasp, it may prove to be emotionally difficult, even for committed feminists, to comprehend a mother who can send off a child to another city or leave her behind — more difficult still when the father, a senator, has a job that would seem to have more away-from-home obligations than an academic’s. Yet the Bradleys seem to feel they have a good and satisfying arrangement. And indeed, they may be pioneers of a brave new world. But in 2000, their way, their brand of gender egalitarianism, seems out of synch with the heartbeat of America.

Now that her magnum opus, The Language of Silence, is finished, now that her older daughter is a mother of four, her younger a college student, Ernestine Bradley is devoting herself to Bill Bradley’s quest for the presidency. “I have had a wonderful career without Bill putting any pressure on me and always giving. . . . So I felt at this time, because of the expectations of the country that: Yes. Of course. There was no question that I would participate to the fullest for whatever I could bring to it.”

But even campaigning Ernestine Schlant Bradley does it her way. Although lively, attractive and good-humored, she does not try to disarm or distract a questioner with a Tipper Gore grin or a Laura Bush shy smile. She is direct: She will not be a surrogate speaker, demanding: How can she expound on an issue and pretend she knows as much as someone who’s spent twenty years studying it? So she will only talk about her husband, not for him. Her own opinions? She keeps them to herself because she is not campaigning for herself. Even on an issue that might be expected to be of interest to her, like support for the National Endowment for Arts, particularly its Literature program? “I don’t really want to get into a controversy over, like Mayor Giuliani and the Brooklyn thing. So I want to not make statements on that.” Okay, she does add: “I do want to stress the importance of art for the well-being of our collective psyche,” but a remark like that is unlikely to win the Barbara Bush Disarming Candor Sweepstakes.

Although on a leave of absence from Montclair State, Ernestine Bradley is still a teacher, willing to give her own reading list for the campaign trail: Toni Morrison’s Paradise. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Garry Wills’ biography St. Augustine. But she will not discuss her religious beliefs, her vision of her role as First Lady or any other subject that might imperil her husband’s hopes or her own sense of propriety.

There is only one was way for her to take on America, which is the way she has gone about doing whatever it is she decided to do: her way. The only issue is, Is America ready to take on an original like Ernestine Schlant Bradley?

Susan Isaacs’s most recent books are Red, White and Blue, a novel, and Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women are Really Doing on Page and Screen.