We Shouldn’t Have First Ladies
Why do we still expect the president’s spouse to act like our little princess?
The daughters and wives of 2016’s presidential aspirants are already having a rough time. Melania Trump, Columba Bush, Chelsea Clinton, and Ivanka Trump have all been subjects of recent profiles, not all of them particularly flattering. Chelsea Clinton, for example, has been called “entitled” while Melania Trump is referred to as a “trophy wife.”
The profiles explored what role these women will play on the campaign trail and—should their loved ones be elected—in the White House. (There is already speculation that Chelsea Clinton would step in to fill a traditional “First Lady” role in a Hillary Clinton presidency.) But here’s a rash thought: Why should these women play any role in campaigns and why should we be expect them to?
As America faces the prospect of possibly electing its first woman president, now seems as good a time as any to ask a question: Is it time to do away with the traditional First Spouse role in the White House?
Most people would find it inappropriate, in the year 2015, to explicitly tell any woman that she is expected to spend most of her life supporting her husband’s career goals full-time. Yet we continue to do that for the spouses of politicians who seek the presidency.
When Howard Dean sought the presidency in 2004, there were endless questions about the absence of his wife on the trail. One columnist referred to his wife, Judith Steinberg, an accomplished physician in her own right, as “a ghost” in her husband’s political career. Former First Lady Laura Bush opened a number of her early campaign speeches by noting that when her husband entered politics he promised her she’d never have to give a speech. After a pause she’d then say, “So much for political promises.”
Despite the humor, profiles made it clear that Mrs. Bush was a private person who was not enthusiastic about her husband entering the family business, specifically because of the disruption and invasion of privacy it would bring to their family’s life.
And she is not the only Bush spouse to have such reservations. Columba Bush, the wife of current presidential candidate Jeb, is notoriously averse to politics and the press. It has been widely reported that the former Florida governor needed time for his wife to come around in supporting his presidential aspirations before he launched his campaign.
With every profile written about Columba Bush, someone who has not sought the limelight and actively shuns it, I have found myself asking, why a candidate’s spouse can’t simply opt out. Why can’t two people say, “We fell in love, I fell into politics. My wife didn’t, so leave her alone.”
But of course the thinking goes that, in America at least, if I elect a person president, I’m electing his spouse by default to represent our country as well. Therefore we should have just as much right to scrutinize him or her, or their kids, just as we do the candidate.
In an email, Katherine Jellison, who is chairperson of the Department of History at Ohio University and an expert on first ladies, explained that what we expect from the wives of presidents has evolved drastically over the last century, particularly with the evolution of mass media—first radio in the time of Eleanor Roosevelt, then television, and today the Internet. But Jellison also noted that as mass media evolved, so did women’s place in society.
“The public no longer expects a first lady to merely wear a pretty dress and look adoringly at her husband,” she said. “She is supposed to provide at least some commentary on current events and to adopt and advance selected public service projects.”
Of course any independent woman who marries a man who decides to pursue public service may wonder why should she have to do either. And I wonder that myself.
In other countries, like the U.K., the spouses of political leaders aren’t expected to play the same kind of role as their American counterparts. Cherie Blair, for example, maintained an impressive career in law and academia while Tony Blair was prime minister.
But part of why she was able to do so is because she was dealing with a different set of expectations. The reason? Because many of the duties filled by our First Lady here are filled by members of the royal family there.
Think for a moment: How many of you know what Kate Middleton looks like? But how many of you know what Samantha Cameron, the wife of Prime Minister David Cameron, looks like? Thanks to their royal counterparts, spouses of high-ranking elected officials in other countries are often free to live the lives they choose, often somewhat under the radar, because someone else is handling the smiling, waving, dinner hosting, ribbon-cuttings—and all of the subsequent scrutiny that comes with it.
I am obviously not suggesting America become a monarchy. But I am suggesting that maybe it’s time that we recognize the important role that hosting state dinners and the like can play, while also recognizing that in the modern era we should no longer be asking an adult to give up her own life to advance such forms of soft diplomacy if she doesn’t want to. Maybe the solution is to create a sort of domestic ambassadorial role known as a White House host or hostess. The position could be appointed, and the caveat would be that the person, like a royal, is not openly political.
My main fear is if we don’t seriously consider making some changes to the First Lady role, and the scrutiny that comes with it, we are going to severely limit the quality of people we see running for office. If a spouse is expected to campaign, then that means we are already limiting our political process to those who can afford to be a one-income household for at least the increasingly lengthy duration of a presidential race.
But also as women’s place in society improves, in the coming years there are going to be fewer and fewer who will be comfortable with giving up their autonomy for their husband’s job—even if that job is president. That means that people who run for office may be those in marriages that are more old-fashioned in terms of gender roles, even if those relationships are no longer representative of most Americans.
Jellison said that she would like to see us become a country that doesn’t expect a spouse to give up his or her career for an unpaid, largely ceremonial role, because that would be “healthier.” Unfortunately, she also said the research she has seen indicates Americans are not quite ready to let go of the office of First Lady as we know it.
“In terms of what Americans say they want from a First Lady—that she play a largely ceremonial role but also feel free to ‘be herself’—that is a pretty unrealistic role, especially in a day and age when she might think ‘being herself’ would ideally mean continuing her medical practice, her law practice, or CEO position,” Jellison said.
The truth is, as much as we Americans may dismiss the monarchies of other nations as antiquated, we seem to get a kick out of treating First Ladies like our very own Princesses. But the reality is in 2015 what real woman would actually want to trade places with an actual princess? According to multiple reports Prince Harry has had more than one relationship end because the women he’s dated have wanted to maintain their own identities. Today, most people do, whether they fall in love with a president or a prince. So in addition to creating a new White House ambassadorial role, maybe it’s time for someone to update those fairy tales to give a new definition of what happily ever after looks like.