THE AMERICAN FIRST LADY
A Homemaker or Policymaker?
By Eric S. Deems
Over the history of the American presidency, the role of the First Lady has evolved.. Eleanor Roosevelt used her first ladyship as a tool for policymaking as seen through her work on the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Jacquelyn Kennedy had a more reserved and nonpolitical role while having the same title.
Is America better served by having a First Lady who is a homemaker or policymaker?
In Gender Politics: News Coverage of the Candidates’ Wives in Campaign 2000, Winfield and Friedman posit four frames that journalists apply to First Ladies: an escort accompanying her spouse; a style setter; a noblesse oblige role, doing charitable works; and the role of policy adviser. Winfield and Friedman analyze how 20th century media coverage of the presidency went beyond the president himself.
When wives defended their husbands, the escort role dominated. Once First Ladies began taking more active policy, community, and trend-setting roles, the frames changed. The style-setter frame got the least amount of attention in the study. With this label, most people think of Jacqueline Kennedy as referenced by the New York Times, who called her “fantastically chic.”
Most prevalent in the study was media attention to first ladies’ good works. These are the “pet projects” of the first ladyship. The noblesse oblige role closely relates to the policy advisor role because they both exemplify the passion the First Lady has with a particular issue. The role of policy adviser, however, gathers the most media attention.
Hillary Rodham Clinton struggled against a more “traditional” First Lady role when she tried to participate as a policymaker. President Clinton’s approval rating was at its lowest when Mrs. Clinton tackled health reform, but rose steadily when the former First Lady confined her activity to the role of White House hostess. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote “the political influence attributed to me was nil when my husband was concerned.” However, Winfield suggests a distinct political element found in First Ladies working as behind-the-scenes advisers and sounding boards for their husbands.
The media generally still ignores or marginalizes the First Lady, even when she initiates a White House program. However, controversy is the lifeblood of media. For example, Jacqueline Kennedy’s independent trips and actions were scrutinized and became publicly controversial when her husband was assassinated. Pat Nixon’s attempt to appear perfect as a wife did not resonate as she stood by her husband’s crumbling presidency.
The First Lady position remains a “no win” situation. The New York Times even complained in 2005 that Laura Bush was “too pretty, too perfect, and too plastic to be true.” Despite how “perfect” one’s First Lady may be, there is a constant in major media coverage: a wife’s potential political influence is too intrusive.
Ann Friedman’s First Ladies in Two Modes differentiates between the First Lady accepted by Republicans and Democrats. The Clintons were the first to fully embrace the Democratic power-couple on the campaign trail. Bill Clinton was not afraid to promise voter a “two for the price of one” presidency. Friedman says the First Partner model allows a candidate to appear centrist while the spouse tends to the base. While Eleanor Roosevelt may have broken the mold, the Clintons took the power-couple to the presidency. Friedman says the Republicans could do a lot of good by learning from this model.
After the analysis of the various roles and expectations of the first ladyship, I would argue that it is better to have a first lady who is engaged in her husband’s administration than one who is passively hiding in his shadows.
The First Lady should serve in each of the roles in a balancing act of sorts. We expect our First Lady to escort her husband, follow protocol at ceremonial events, maintain “pet projects” through charitable works, and to allow her passion to find a way to contribute to the policymaking of her husband’s administration in non-intrusive ways.
Hillary Clinton came into the White House knowing she would be a policy adviser, having been politically linked to her husband since their days at Georgetown. However, the Kennedy family had a number of small children that required rearing by their mother. Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Bill and Hillary, attended a boarding school and was not at the White House every day like the Kennedy kids. There are clear differences and even extenuating circumstances that shape the different first ladyships.
Michelle Obama has two small children, and the Obamas decided to invite the children’s grandmother to live in the White House to help raise them. Michelle feels a duty to be involved in her husband’s administration. She is following in Clinton’s footsteps as a policy adviser. I have strong convictions that a first lady who is a “policymaker” is better for our country than one who is only a “homemaker.”
While finding a balance will be important, we should not expect these qualified, educated, and passionate women living in the White House to settle for anything less than what is desired by the administration.
Eric S. Deems is a sophomore Business and Political Science double major in the Honors program.