The unelected, unofficial, unpaid Job of 45 women and counting
The title of “first lady” comes with no official job description and no salary. Given this, the expectations of women who occupy the role are absurd. The position exists solely out of a precedence which was established in a different historical context, before the movement for equal pay for equal work existed, before it was even the norm for women to work and before women were granted agency over their own bodies with the Roe v Wade decision. Tradition alone provides the rigid framework of behavior in which the first lady is expected to remain. She is heavily critiqued if she strays from the role defined by influential first ladies like Martha Washington, who set the precedent of first lady serving as social hostess, along with Eleanor Roosevelt and Lady Bird Johnson, both of whom expanded the role and its power into what it is today.
In fact, the White House Historical Association notes that the term “First Lady of the Land” became commonplace by the turn of the 20th
century, and that it wasn’t until the 30s and 40s that it was shortened to “First Lady” with Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt. So the actions of the wives of our presidents today are shaped by women who aimed to please and satisfy the expectations, stereotypes and biases held by the American public in the 1800s and 1900s.
To figure out what it means to be first lady, let’s start with Martha Washington, who, as the first to occupy the role, set some important standards. The National First Ladies’ Library writes that she is responsible for the precedent of the first lady serving as a social hostess. Her eight years as first lady were notably documented as “extremely unpleasant to her personally,” and she was subject to restrictions placed on her by her husband’s secretary.
Nearly 150 years later, Eleanor Roosevelt significantly shaped the role during the 1930s and into the 40s. She was significantly more personally engaged in advancing her husband’s agenda, and was also the first to hire a “salaried executive clerk” to assist with social events and renovations in the White House. She communicated with the public through her daily “My Day” column and other various magazine articles, promoted social justice, held women-only press conferences and furthered the president’s political agenda, in addition to carrying out the ceremonial duties of first lady as White House hostess. In her years as first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt increased the influence and responsibility of the role, a change which would influence generations to come.
Still, the position was unofficial and unsalaried, and as Eleanor had married into it, she was given no choice but to assume it. Like with Martha Washington, Maurine Beasley, professor emerita of journalism at University of Maryland, notes that Eleanor “did not want to be first lady.” Lorena Hickok, one of Roosevelt’s closest confidants during Franklin’s time in office, even wrote a book on the matter entitled Reluctant First Lady. Eleanor reinvented the role in an impressive way, but reluctantly so, and with no compensation.
Lady Bird Johnson again redefined the role of first lady during her term from 1963 to 1969. She called upon her impressive resume and educational background when making history as the first first lady to go on the campaign trail without her husband in a “four day, 47-town solo whistle-stop tour to campaign… in the South,” Scarlet Neath of The Atlantic reported. She was the first to have her own press secretary and chief of staff, and established the successful Head Start program, which continues to provide assistance to low-income families today. But again, the work that she did went unpaid.
So, according to documented history, the role of first lady is a sometimes meaningless, often decorative and always restrictive one with largely ceremonial work which has brought about unhappiness for many of the women who are forced to occupy it. Their actions, words and outfits are scrutinized relentlessly, and they don’t get a dime for it.
And that’s pretty much where we are today. In my opinion, Michelle Obama was a classically successful first lady—she chose a cause to champion, dutifully carried out her ceremonial responsibilities, was poised and elegant and represented her husband well, and tops all the recent rankings of most stylish first ladies. She did an admirable job in adhering to the created tradition, hitting the elusive first lady bullseye “of being effective, but not overreaching,” as Neath characterizes it. While she left some big shoes to fill, Michele Obama did not redefine or update the role in any significant way.
Melania Trump, on the other hand, while only 9 months into her term, might not even be on the dartboard yet. She has been largely absent, often leaving Ivanka responsible for the ceremonial first lady duties. Despite, or perhaps to spite her husband, she chose to combat cyberbullying, but her efforts to date have been minimal. Media coverage of Melania often focuses on either her apparently cold relationship with the president or her fashion choices. Though I can only speculate, her slow entrance into the limelight and delayed move to Washington suggest a reluctant (at best) assumption of the role. And unlike with many other first ladies, she married a businessman, not a politician; this position was not one she could have known she was marrying into. It seems unlikely that she would have desired to be first lady, and she hasn’t gone to great lengths to hide this fact.
And in the scrutiny of her fashion choices and criticism of her absence, there is little discussion of the fact that Melania Trump, in the last year, has been almost completely deprived of her freedom, autonomy, and privacy—involuntarily. Instead of respecting the life she built for herself, her personhood and autonomy, we focus on her choice to wear stilettos in hurricane relief efforts, or the puffy pink dress she donned to deliver her United Nations address in September.
Nevertheless, Melania dutifully chose a cause to champion in early November 2016, before the election. Of all things, she chose to combat cyberbullying, saying that “our culture has gotten too mean and too rough,” and that “we have to find a better way to talk to each other, to disagree with each other, to respect each other.” It isn’t necessary to point out the irony in this choice. It’s so obvious, so pointed, that I frankly have a hard time believing that it’s anything but a resentful jab at her husband. Some have said of the choice that it isn’t her place to speak out against cyberbullying because given her husband’s track record, it’s incredibly hypocritical.
It seems to me, though, that she is perfectly positioned to combat cyberbullying. She holds clout with the people who look up to and may be influenced by Donald Trump’s malicious, harmful language online. If she concentrated her efforts and supported her husband’s political agenda, President Trump would be expected to return the favor by supporting Melania’s cause, and perhaps his rhetoric would soften and mature. This hypothetical assumes Melania’s desire and motivation to “play the game” and bring about change in this way, which given her apparent reluctance thus far, seems like a long shot. However, a recent New York Times article by Katie Rogers suggests that she is preparing to “formally start a platform in the coming months” and that she has “ramped up her public appearances in recent weeks.” It is perhaps too early to place a value judgment on Melania’s term as first lady, but her slow start certainly suggests resistance.
From everything I’ve learned, it’s easy to agree that first ladies aren’t in an enviable position. Penciled into the margins of their marriage vows is a four-to-eight year recipe for unhappiness, as the role of first lady comes with no official rulebook but constant scrutiny, high expectations, a complete lack of privacy, and no room for autonomy or independence.
Undeniably, the position is due for an update, but what might that look like? As the White House Historical Association points out, “the spouses of presidents are not elected to serve, but they cannot avoid the reality of being married to the leader of the nation.” This is true — but what of the other side of the coin? The spouses of presidents are not elected to serve, so they should hold no influence and should be paid little mind by the American public. The fact that they are married to the president is meaningless, besides the private, supportive role it might imply. Still, the argument could be made that the historical role of first lady has evolved into something too significant to sacrifice, and anyway, a White House host is an important role of hospitality. The office of the First Lady does the necessary work of organizing the social and ceremonial White House events. The fact remains, though, that the position as it exists is a sexist one which assumes that the president’s spouse sacrifices much of her life with no compensation. So how do we give this position the update it so desperately needs?
The solution seems as simple as renaming the position and giving the job to someone more suited for it—namely, someone who wants it. Call them the East Wing Director, and let the president name a qualified appointment. They would run the East Wing Office, manage and oversee the East Wing staff, serve as social host of the White House and promote social justice through various initiatives, either in coordination with the president’s agenda or outside of it. It would be a paid, dignified position, and it would be reserved, like most jobs, for someone who wants it.
And most importantly, it would allow the president’s spouse to maintain privacy and agency. This doesn’t have to be a point of controversy: Angela Merkel’s husband Joachim Sauer, for example, is unproblematically absent from the political limelight as he works as a chemist and professor. Again, Americans elect the president, not their spouse.
Yes, this reimagining of the role leaves kinks to be worked out and details to be thought through. Obviously. But I would argue that it is far preferable to our current situation, as it respects the life, privacy and autonomy of the president’s spouse and addresses this sexist, constructed, uncompensated role in our government.
It is absurd that at this point in the American story, with the suffragist movement and three distinct waves of feminism, with the passage of Title IX and multiple equal pay policies behind us, that an office as public as this one and as rooted in sexist tradition exists and has persisted into 2017. A Clinton presidency, while arguably preferable to Trump’s for more than a few reasons, would have likely sparked a long overdue reappraisal of the role and notion of first lady, with a figure as dignified as a former president forced to assume and take on the responsibilities of such a stereotypically feminine role.
Perhaps Melania Trump’s apparent resistance to the role as it exists now is an indication that she could be a catalyst for change. Nonetheless, the messaging from the White House remains, intentionally or not, that the first lady’s work is valueless. It is compensation discrimination, sanctioned by our government in one of the most public offices in America. It is an injustice which has only directly affected 45 women, but which subtly reinforces the messages that wives exist only in relation to their husband, that denying agency and choice to women is okay, and that the work that first ladies do is less valuable, even valueless. Melania Trump and every woman deserves the right to shape her own future. This doesn’t, by any means, end with the reconstruction of the role of presidential spouse, but it’s a high profile and influential place to start.
Isabel Brooke is a second year Philosophy-Religion and Politics major who hopes to never become the 46th First Lady of the United States. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.