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Does the First Lady Position Put Ladies First?

10 Mar 2021
By Zoe Mitchell
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and the Biden family dog. Source: The White House

Up until recently, if asked to identify the most prominent female figure in US politics, the obvious answer would be the First Lady. Yet when asked to outline the role played by such a prominent female figure, many would be forgiven for stopping short.

The First Lady of the United States holds a position which has over the years attracted admiration and mystique and been subject to constant redefinition and transformation. Some have hailed the prestige surrounding the role as an opportunity to make visible the potential of women’s involvement in power and politics. The image of Michelle Obama as Barack’s closest advisor, famously heralded as wiser than her husband, speaks to this potentiality. Yet when considering the first lady position’s linkage to traditional domestic family structures, officially only holding ceremonial power, the promise of empowerment becomes slightly more complicated.

The diversity of opportunities available to the first lady are evident when considering the differences between Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, and the recently inaugurated Jill Biden. While Melania portrayed the silent, supportive wife, Michelle presented herself as an empowered activist. This appears to also be the trajectory of Dr Jill Biden, who has thus far poured her efforts into the reopening of schools, in alignment with her teaching background, and the administration of immigration policies. In some ways, the role is as empowering or disempowering as the first lady herself determines.

While being the first lady does allow scope for a position as the president’s advisor and confidant, the role does not require the giving of advice, nor is the president expected to be welcoming of said advice. Unlike the presidency, it is not even a paid job. And while dynamic, history-forging women have fulfilled the role, their power in many instances is still revered in relation to their significant others. As well, the representation and respect of first ladies, particularly evident in the case of Hillary Clinton, only goes so far. While the policy advice of Clinton throughout her tenure as first lady to former President Bill Clinton was reflected in legislative change, when it came to launching her own presidential campaign, many of her legacies followed her in a detrimental way.

The idea of Mr President and his First Lady is entrenched in American popular and political culture. This concept of glamour and status is reflected even, at a base level, in the nomenclature, First Lady. How does the requirement of being a “lady” reinforce or reduce empowerment in connection with the role? The traditional qualities of a lady present images of virtue and class, yet also self-sacrifice and a ceding to others, tainting understanding of the role as a vessel promoting a female political voice.

Contemporary conceptions of a lady hold significantly less merit than in the early 20th century when the role was officially devised. The word “lady” itself still holds connotations of politeness, status, and formality which are appropriate to the role, but seemingly unnecessary. The title of “First Lady” wasn’t even used until Eleanor Roosevelt’s tenure, after both her and Franklin were viewed as the “First Couple” presenting a united stance on activism and politics. Prior to that, there was no title at all. Perhaps the recent popularisation of the acronym title “FLOTUS” (First Lady of the United States) hints of a path towards reform.

As well, considerations of the title “First Lady” raise interesting questions probing the disconnect between public and private acceptance of modern understandings of gender constructs, and non-male empowerment generally. Pointing to the obvious, there has been no first gentleman thus far. The closest we have come to that is Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, Vice-President Kamala Harris’s husband, who has been in this role for less than two months. And the public treatment of him is worthy of mention.

Doug Emhoff stepped into the limelight firmly, and consciously, in the shadow of his wife, Kamala. He has continually reiterated his support of her position on social media platforms, fulfilling the roles of doting husband, hard-working teacher, and loving father. In response, the media and the general American public have praised him, gushing with adoration at his decision to support his wife. What is interesting is that the media have portrayed Emhoff’s support as a choice as opposed to an expectation, as is entrenched in the first ladyship.

Commentators have begun to question whether this attention on Emhoff is pro- or anti-feminist. The anti-feminist position does not project that praise of Emhoff is not well deserved. Rather, it raises the fact that minimal attention was paid to the two previous second ladies, Karen Pence and Jill Biden. As well, it is difficult to envision Emhoff being criticised for wearing a certain colour of clothing or for wearing the same suit twice.

It is perhaps naïve to wish for an explicit statement of the roles and responsibilities of the first lady, or an inclusion of a specific requirement of assistance with political policy making. After all, to impose these requirements on a spouse who may have no experience in the political realm would be arduous, and perhaps contribute more harm than good. Yet the fault of the position really lies with its entrenchment of such a nuclear family structure, where the wife’s role is to be her husband’s cheerleader and child-bearer.

The position appears to have been historically caught between tradition and innovation. While there is the promise of a political voice, it is an opt-in opportunity. Rather, the bare bones of the position lie with its entrenchment of support, reinforcement, and likeability. When considering the multitude of debates about the reversal of traditional husband-and-wife expectations, the first lady position seems to entrench traditional gender roles. Accusations of Hillary Clinton emasculating her husband Bill would support this, in the same way the decision of Jill Biden to continue teaching since her husband assumed the presidency has raised eyebrows.

There is no denying the women who have occupied the role of first lady have contributed meaningfully to the development of female empowerment in politics, aided by the visibility of their efforts. Despite extraneous shifts sideways, the noticeable trend of the position has moved towards one encouraging an active involvement of the first lady in domestic and world affairs. But the title itself remains a relic of the past, a constant reminder of the fact in leadership, there is the President – a gender-neutral term – and the First Lady.

Zoe Mitchell is the Assistant Editor of Australian Outlook. She is currently studying an undergraduate Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Arts at the Australian National University. She has previously worked as a freelance contributor for HerCanberra and as a research assistant for The Justinian. She aspires to enter media and communications following the completion of her degree.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.