Thursday, March 17, 2016

Defining the Modern First Lady

I know we are not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but I admit to being puzzled by the outpouring of grief at the death of Nancy Reagan.  I understand that she was the beloved wife of a very popular president, and her devotion to him was frequently praised.  And I especially understand that for conservative Republicans, she represented a golden age, when the country was led by Ronald Reagan, a president they believed could do no wrong. In this version of history, Nancy is remembered as the perfect First Lady: elegantly dressed, always feminine, someone who gave beautiful parties, upheld traditional gender roles, and always put her husband first.

There is nothing wrong with any of that, but it omits a few other facts.  By most accounts, Nancy Reagan was an indifferent and even unloving mother to her kids-- her devotion was only for her husband, and her children often felt excluded. (They eventually reconciled with her in her later years.)  Her elegant style, while praised by her supporters, also brought criticism: she was accused of being extravagant, or at least tone-deaf:  as ordinary Americans endured a recession in the early 1980s, she spent large sums of money on decorating the White House, and she also entertained lavishly; she seemed to feel the most at ease in the company of the wealthy and powerful.  Like her husband, she was slow to acknowledge or address the AIDS crisis; her reaction to the specter of drug abuse was to tell kids to "Just say no"; and of course, there was the astrologer she relied upon to help set the president's schedule.  

But in fairness to Nancy Reagan, being a First Lady is often a thankless task.  As presidential historian Lewis L. Gould once noted, "Americans are ambivalent about presidential wives. First ladies must perform diverse duties without error, and any deviation from perceived standards brings instant criticism.  At the same time, the role undergoes constant adjustment as the public’s view of women evolves and the presidency itself changes.” And that is what strikes me as so bizarre:  on the one hand, women have come a long way, such that today it is no longer unusual to see women business executives, or doctors, or astronauts, or members of congress.  But on the other hand, the role of the First Lady is still stuck in the 1950s.  

If a First Lady previously had a career, she is expected to willingly give it up; and no matter how accomplished she may have been prior to being in the White House, she is not supposed to mention it.  Now that she is the First Lady, the focus turns to what kind of gown she is wearing at special events (and which designer created it), as well as which charity she supports.  A First Lady is expected to have her own favorite cause and to champion it (for example-- Lou Henry Hoover, wife of Herbert Hoover, promoted the Girl Scouts, while Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush, promoted literacy programs).  But if a First Lady tries to discuss policy or take a stand on a current issue (as Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton did), she is often harshly criticized for doing so.  And if she is perceived by the media or by the public as having too forceful a personality, that too will earn her lots of scorn.  

It is thus not surprising that the more traditional First Ladies, the ones who embrace the role of Hostess (and Wife) in Chief, who are content to remain in the background, who always look lovely and never say anything controversial, are often the most popular.  That may be why those who remember Nancy Reagan so fondly believe she brought dignity and grace to the position of First Lady.  It's all reminiscent of the era of "Camelot" in the early 1960s, when the equally elegant and photogenic Jacqueline Kennedy was First Lady and became a fashion icon for the nation; a former journalist, she acknowledged to a reporter that her husband would not allow her to keep her career nor be in the spotlight more than he was.  So, she accepted her new position as queen of the domestic sphere, and always managed to look glamorous no matter what she was doing.

I understand that for some political wives, giving up their career and their identity in order to live in the White House (and be a fashion icon) sounds like an amazing life.  But the constant scrutiny, the endless criticism for daring to step outside the boundaries of the role, and the inability to openly speak out on current issues... all of this means it's not a life for just anyone.  Frankly, I don't know why in 2016 it would be such a problem if a First Lady kept her career or did something other than host parties and advocate for her favorite charity.  And what if we have a woman president-- what will we expect of her husband?  It's an interesting time to think about what it means to be a First Lady, or for that matter, a First Gentleman. Do we want elegance and glamour?  Do we want someone who stays in the background?  Or is it time to let presidential spouses define their role for themselves, rather than having a 1950s version of society define it for them?

1 comment:

  1. I believe Michelle Obama defines both the "glamour" that is rightly or wrongly expected of the First Lady while remaining strong and independent. Yes, she gave up her law career. But she is unafraid of speaking to the issues that matter to her and has often been criticized for doing so. She is also by all (reasonable) accounts a devoted mother.

    I'm in the "vote blue no matter who" camp and am very interested to see how Jane Sanders or Bill Clinton will redefine the role of First Spouse.