What does it mean to be the First Lady of the United States?
Although the role of the president’s spouse is ceremonial, informal and has never been codified or officially defined, it comes loaded with expectations. As the role has evolved, the first lady has become a hypervisible political and social figure who represents and advises the president while running her own campaigns championing various causes. As hostess of the White House, she is charge of all social and ceremonial events. The First Lady has her own staff that includes a chief of staff, press secretary, social secretary and a chief floral designer, among others.
Despite the significant responsibilities usually handled by the First Lady, the First Lady does not receive a salary.
Melania Trump was recently criticized across the internet for a photograph of the first lady arriving to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts in stilletos.
The shoes may have been impractical, but considering what Donald Trump is able to get away with, her crucifixion over her tone-deaf, privileged fashion choice seemed ridiculous. But when Huffington Post writer Jennifer Newsom argued that feminists need to hold Melania Trump accountable as a role model for young women as the first lady instead of tearing her apart for her heels, it rubbed me the wrong way.
Why is Melania Trump expected to do anything?
The idea of a “First Lady” has always confused me. There’s an expectation that because a man will be president, it’s a woman, a wife who must assume a role as a result of the actions of her husband — talk about heteronormative and misogynistic and reductionist. Melania Trump was not elected to office and has no salary. If we’re going to expect a woman to serve and lead us, then we should both elect her and pay her. Expecting a woman to simply fall into this constructed roll and be enthusiastically hardworking and successful in it is not feminist, and it does not respect the autonomy of a woman.
And no, I don’t think she signed up for it by marrying Donald Trump or staying married to him throughout his campaign and election while knowing that this was the precedent and expectation. Even if she had known of his intention to campaign for the presidency when they entered their marriage, I don’t think it would be fair to expect this of her; however, if she didn’t, it would be ludicrous to argue that Melania Trump should have removed herself from her marriage and that remaining in it subjects her to this role. To me, this idea shows the issues we have with understanding what it means for a woman to explicitly consent or agree to something.
In her article, Newsom said that “Melania as First Lady is setting a terrible example for my daughters. She is passive when we want her to be substantive, an object when we want her to be an agent, and prejudiced when we want her to be inclusive. … If we want to show our girls how to be the leaders of tomorrow, and if we want our boys to see them as such, then we must start by holding Melania accountable for her failed leadership.”
Melania Trump needs to be critiqued and held accountable for her actions and her words. But not for “failed” leadership. You only fail to do something if you don’t follow through with your commitment. You can’t fail to do something you never agreed to do in the first place.
Yes, the fact that the heels have become such an issue says loud and clear the way society views women.
So did the coverage of the presidential race, especially the debates. The comparative standards and expectations for Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump said volumes — I could write a whole post on that alone. Even just the fact that we use “Melania” and “Hilary” to refer to these women when we refer to men using their last names says a lot.
However, I would make the arguments Newsom made about Melania Trump about Hillary Clinton instead. When the media and the popular opinion reduce an accomplished, educated woman to her fashion choices and critique the way she appears to and communicates with others while allowing her male opponent/counterpart to do whatever Donald Trump does, it sends a message to women of all ages that they can’t be leaders because they won’t be supported and because they’re not capable. It says that women are something to look at.
Clinton, who was actively campaigning for a position of power, needed to be held accountable for her mistakes and flaws rather than reamed for her fashion choices and speaking cadence.
However, she was held accountable. She was critiqued for the email scandal, her privilege, where she fell short in terms social justice issues. Donald Trump was certainly criticized as well, but he made more mistakes and had more flaws and was awarded success regardless. His critiques were merely observations. Now he’s president.
Melania Trump is elitist and out of touch and clearly didn’t have any intention of physically helping anyone or even getting dirty in those heels. So yes, maybe we should expect more from her just as an affluent, able person present and in a position to help people. But that doesn’t mean she’s a “failed” first lady.
What other career comes with spousal expectations? Is a chemist’s wife expected to conduct her own unpaid research in the lab? If a man becomes a restaurant’s executive chef, should his wife start planning her own menus or make marketing materials? That would be ridiculous to expect.
The existence of the office of the first lady alone is rooted in sexism and heteronormativity, implying that women won’t become president and that the men who do become president will have wives. It says that either these women won’t be involved in their own careers or that it shouldn’t matter if they have to give them up. It puts them in a domestic sphere as the White House’s hostess and devalues their work, much like society devalues the workload of women who work to earn money, but who are also responsible for significant amounts of unpaid domestic labor.
First ladies have played an important and valuable role, but presidential spouses should be able to choose whether to step into the role and be fairly compensated for their work.