First Lady, Second Priority: The Dumbing-Down of the President’s Wives

My college reunion books are peppered with comments by admirable women who left their careers as doctors or lawyers or bankers who say their children are more satisfying than their job ever could be. These are women who were at the top of their game with their careers, highly educated women who are as intelligent as any man and still bring life into this world. A magnificent combination!

However, what I cannot understand is this: the forced exile from the workplace of our First Ladies. In the recent administrations, the First Ladies have been highly intelligent, educated, well-read, sophisticated, and professional career women who often took a backseat to help further the political aspirations of their husbands. Some of these women could have been presidents themselves. True, the presidential families may have wished for one parent to be more present and at home for the children while the other parent is away traveling the country or the globe, attending summits and talks or attempting to rectify communities after natural disasters.

But we are not talking about normal families here; we are talking about families that have access to literally the best resources in the world, who have ability to pull strings to have any lifestyle adaptations they wish, and whose family dynamics will naturally be different than ours. These families could have a mother who works a professional job part-time, or from home, or who is very vocal about political interests of her own. This does not have to be a conflict of interest. Instead, these women are stifled for whatever reasons. The bottom line is that John Q. Public and the American establishment still cannot accept a First Lady who pulls her own weight equal to her husband’s. The First Lady cannot be involved in politics like her husband.

Naturally, Eleanor Roosevelt must spring to mind when anyone thinks of a dynamic, active First Lady. Her role seemed almost a counterpart to FDR’s, and perhaps she really ran things behind the scenes when her husband’s health did not enable him to do so. Mrs. Roosevelt’s career even continued after her husband’s death, and she was an equally acclaimed woman in her own right. Perhaps it was the only benefit of the war, in that women at that time had a certain degree of public presence and worked when the men were fighting overseas.

Jacqueline Kennedy — though Sphinx-like, feminine, graceful, and in a sadly traditional marriage that tolerated rampant cheating–was extraordinary in her championing of the arts. In her quiet way, she developed a culture and served as the impetus for other institutions that brought high culture to America, as well as boosted American’s profile overseas. Well read, multilingual, and intelligent, it wasn’t till later in life that she got the chance to use her knowledge when she worked as a book editor in New York.

Betty Ford was also an arts lover. A bohemian former dancer and divorcée, she supported equal rights for women, various “liberal” social causes that are considered normal today, and made alcoholism and its treatment a visible issue through her own struggles before founding the Betty Ford Clinic. But certainly, she came under criticism for discussing taboo issues in public. It was possibly one of the first times that a First Lady showed the cracks in the façade, showed that she was human and not simply an elegant figurehead to host state dinners.

But then jump ahead a couple of decades to the fiercely intelligent and accomplished Hillary Rodham Clinton. There had been no one quite like her before coming to the White House, as she arguably could have shared the job of president with her husband. Mrs. Clinton tried to embark on major health care reform and tried to get seriously involved with policy matters. Unfortunately, she was bullied, criticized, and harassed for trying to hold equal role of her own in the White House. The White House experienced a setback with Mrs. Laura Bush. She returned to a more traditional role, championing reading and literacy, which were more “safe” causes. This is not in any way to criticize Mrs. Bush’s intelligence, for if you have heard her speak, it comes across very strongly and she is well read. Some might even say that she is more intelligent than her husband!

With Michelle Obama, we have again revisited a situation not unlike that of Mrs. Clinton. She is a brilliant woman who made her way from Southside Chicago to Princeton to Harvard Law School, then to a law firm and then the University of Chicago. Granted, she has two small children and she is clearly a very devoted mother who has her kids as a priority. But why is this brilliant woman not encouraged to use her legal knowledge to do more for society and hold a strong position of her own? She has certainly done great work with military families as well as tackling childhood obesity and healthy eating, which is extremely crucial at this time. But the point is–

These highly educated– women who should not be criticized if they choose to spend more time with their children or if they want to ease off on the stress of having a career–should also have the option to pursue a dynamic career while in the White House that utilizes their previous training. Jill Biden, the Vice President’s wife, is a wonderful example, as she has a doctorate and teaches full time at a community college while still being involved in helping military families as her “cause.” First Ladies should not be expected to only take on “neutral” causes that are “safe.” They should be allowed to help make policy, serve in the cabinet, etc., because after all, they did support their husband in his campaign to become president, are obviously in the same political party, and are often extremely knowledgeable themselves about politics. And often overseas, presidential/prime ministerial spouses hold their own independent careers such as Joachim Sauer, Angela Merkel’s husband, who is a chemistry professor.

We need to rethink the role of the presidential spouse, especially because there is a possibility in 2017 we will have a First Man!   William Jefferson Clinton has already served in the highest position in the country, so will he have to relinquish everything, including the Clinton Global Initiative, by his own independent work? He knows more about the White House and presidency than anybody, so why not put it to use?

Naturally, there are going to be lots of questions as to what are the ethical boundaries of this role and where is there a conflict of interest? These are things that will have to be worked out, and that will be a large cause for debate. However, this is a necessary step in empowering that rarest gem of a woman, the First Lady.

Mini-post: The Brilliance of Balanchine

Last weekend I was privileged to see a trilogy of three ballets by the Russian-Georgian genius George Balanchine beautifully performed by the City Ballet of San Diego. Having been a fan of the New York City ballet when I lived there, a ballet he cofounded, I was eager to see his works once again after many years. The pieces performed were “Concerto Baroco,” “Jewels,” and “Square Dance.”

What struck me the most was the way in which Balanchine understood the music. “Concerto Baroco” was performed to the “Bach Double” (a piece with which all Suzuki violin students are familiar). While in most ballets the music serves to underscore or highlight the movements of the dancers, movements that are determined by the choreographer, here, the dancers were the music. That is, the choreography was music-driven, rather than dancer-driven.

Choosing the music for choreography is more than putting a soundtrack to movement; it requires understanding how the dancers will serve the music and vice versa. It requires a deep sense of rhythm, melody, phrasing, and music. It also requires a deep understanding of the body and its abilities, its angles and lines (a very key concept to classical ballet), and also spatial thinking, as dancers do not stand still but move across a stage. Anyone who is a musician can only benefit from training in dance, because dancers are musicians who make music with their bodies. Flamenco and tap dance are great examples of dancers who have to create their own music and rhythm, for the sound of their feet accompanies them.

Choreographers who do not understand music well will only produce a palatable or unpleasant result. Non-experts or non-connoisseurs of dance may not be able to pinpoint what they didn’t like when viewing a ballet dance performance, but they might sense that something was “off.”

Choreography is indeed an underrated and underappreciated art. Let’s continue to look for and support the Balanchines–male and female–of tomorrow.

Why American Feminism Has Failed

Much of my work on The Women of Letters has focused on bringing a cross-cultural/international perspective to American culture and institutions. It is time to turn our attention to American feminism and to see why, despite the United States being the most powerful country in the world and a leading developed nation, certain markers of progress for women still lag behind other developed nations.

Mine was the first American generation that was equal by law in terms of race and gender. I grew up feeling strong and capable of anything, unhindered by gender. However, at Stanford, I found that the definition of “feminist” was something entirely foreign to my own conception of feminism. I felt very alienated by the women who called themselves feminists, found their conception of feminism and women’s rights extremely militant and divisive. Once I entered the “real world,” I indeed encountered sexism on a concrete level that was often subtle and not easy to prove. I also saw how difficult it was for working women, especially married mothers, to balance career and family, to be able to afford childcare and to take time off from their jobs. I saw how this affected women across class and race, and how the law and health care system did not address women’s needs adequately. A woman’s co-pay to see a gynecologist, who is wrongly considered a “specialist,” costs more than a visit to a primary care physician.

The feminists of the 60’s and 70’s who laid the groundwork for my generation focused on the wrong perspectives or took the wrong approaches. Some academic feminists have contributed to the problem as well, focusing on esoterica and frivolity. Here are some reasons why I believe American feminism has not achieved enough:

-American feminism has focused on sexuality rather than economics. The Nordic countries have the lowest rates of economic inequality and the best policies for maternity leave, and rank highest on various global indices for “best countries for women.” American women can read about the best sex positions in Cosmo, enjoy the antics of “Sex and the City,” debate the use of the word “history” instead of “herstory” (which is ridiculous, as it reveals an ignorance of Latin etymology), sign petitions about being proud to have an abortion (is it really a source of pride, when it shows the failure of effective birth control for women?), go to endless performances of “The Vagina Monologues,” but in the end, a woman will have to put her baby in daycare at six weeks, if she can even afford it, because women are not paid as much as men. How is this progress?

If we use our rather short-sighted American criteria as for what is “progressive” for women (which usually means sexual freedom), then popular opinion has it that Nordic women are very open in their sexuality and sexually fulfilled (one study cited in “The Economist” showed that Finnish women are the most “promiscuous” in the world, having had the most number of sexual partners). Based on this simplistic American criterion, we would find that the country that is rated best for women on numerous indices, Iceland, had a lesbian prime minister. But this is overlooking the key point–if we attend to a woman’s economic needs, then she will be free to be whoever she is sexually. We have focused too much on sex, and now a woman can be sexually equal to a man. The problem is, he still won’t call you the next morning, and your insurance might not cover your birth control.

-American feminism has focused too much on individualism. We see individual women who have followed their paths and found success–the Hillary Clintons, Sheryl Sandbergs, Alice Walkers, Meryl Streeps of America have all been extraordinary women in their respective fields. Women like Gloria Steinem have been idolized for decades. While I certainly admire Ms. Steinem’s accomplishments, I feel that she and her 1970’s ilk have focused too much on their own positions, which are unlike that of the majority of American women who are concerned with getting good schooling for their kids, getting vacation time, and negotiating with their spouse about who is doing the vacuuming.

The problem comes because it raises the issue of marriage as the norm for society. Feminists who have opposed marriage have cited that it is oppressive as an institution, and that individual freedom is the antidote. We are in an era where women are free to make their choices as to their lifestyle and lovers, which is a healthy thing. But again, we have to look at the majority of American women who are wives and mothers, even lesbian couples, or single or married but childless women who help care for children or child relatives. American feminism has refused to see family as the normative unit, all under the name of “oppression.” How is it oppressive to a non-married woman, who is now free to live as she likes, and her society is able to care for her as well as families? The late Betty Friedan was aware of these things, and NOW was originally founded to help the ordinary woman. Unfortunately, things took a different turn and feminism lost its focus on helping the majority of women. This is not to say that a woman must be married or partnered in order to be whole and fulfilled, that she is any less than a married woman. It is simply saying we need to address the issues that will help as many women as possible.

-American feminism has not included men enough. This relates to the above point–even even women who have no intention of getting married or having children lament the irresponsibility of the modern American male who can’t even commit to a romantic relationship. This is the result of the lack of focus on feminism and its relation to human relationships, be it marriage or motherhood. Men have not been held responsible since women are free to be whomever they want as an individual. Many women say that men are not as “evolved” as they are, while men say that they do not feel like they can “be a man” anymore. We have not reevaluated male gender roles, nor taken their needs into account.

And yet, there still is a lot of deeply-ingrained sexism towards women: out-of-touch male politicians make decisions about women’s reproductive rights, rape and sexual assault are too prevalent on college campuses, and paid maternity leave is very inadequate. We still have a long way to go for institutional change.

-The LGBT community still suffers. While we see sensationalized girl-on-girl action in movies or an openly gay show host on TV, our LGBT friends are dealing with a host of issues: domestic violence among lesbian couples, transgender youth being beaten up, discrimination in the workplace, and hate crimes. If our society focused on collective welfare that began with taking care of women, I believe that people would be able to accept people who were not heterosexual. Certainly, women who are not straight would certainly accuse society of being “heteronormative.” This is a legitimate criticism. However, once again I cite the Nordic example of having the best cultures for women as well as gays, and also the fact that one of the key psychological issues many LGBT people suffer is being shunned by their families.

It is time that we look at American society as a bit aberrant compared to most other places in the world. It is time we reevaluate our definitions of feminism, our individualism that is both our greatest asset as well as, perhaps, our curse. It is time we truly, deeply respect women.