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.

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