Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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The First Lady

Res Publica

August 2012

by Rebekah Sherman

I am awful at answering rhetorical questions. I can handle a query about my favorite color most days, but any outrageous hypotheticals challenge my practical mind. Consequently, I don’t do well with icebreakers, and a “women’s mentoring luncheon” is the icebreaker’s natural habitat. This time we were all asked who we would spend an hour with given an unrestricted choice. Since anyone living or dead was an option, my choice was narrowed down to a few trillion. Thankfully, I was laboring over a large research paper at the time and thus had a historical figure ready to offer as my choice for a tête-à-tête. The other young women offered their (more creative) choices and ended up surprising our seminar leader. “So many of you chose first ladies!” She exclaimed. “In my generation, no one would have had the courage to choose a first lady. She occupies a secondary role. Feminism is not comfortable with that.”

So for once, an icebreaker gave me some food for thought. Not why feminism is uncomfortable with a first lady – it is possibly the most purely feminine title one could imagine – but why most of us do happen to like and admire first ladies. The girls who chose a first lady as a conversational companion mostly offered the sad adjective of “interesting” to describe their role model. One ventured that her first lady was worthy of note because she was often neglected in the shadow of her husband’s accomplishments, and my fellow intern wanted to learn more about this woman in her own right. But there are plenty of married women who do extraordinary things, sometimes garnering press and notoriety for them, sometimes not. What do we love about first ladies?

My first thought was born of a recent wedding on the other side of the Atlantic. Due to our unfortunate experiences with a Hanover centuries ago, Americans do not have any royalty. Europe today has an assortment of royal individuals who occupy a highly public and political station but do not themselves rule. They can therefore be examples of austerity in a time of need by not accepting wedding gifts, but do not need to be held responsible to actually devise a governmental budget. Perhaps Americans have replaced their royalty with a first lady. After all, she has her position the same way a royal does – through the ties of family. She lives in the most political city in the world and her comments on public policy are taken seriously. She is political without holding office.

Our American lady does not hold the position ad infinitum, however. Though Ronald Reagan dedicated his memoirs to Nancy, “always my First Lady,” women do not attain this title until their husbands are elected, generally much later in life than other accomplishments. She may have a claim to the title for the rest of her life, but her tenure in  the White House is of short duration – always less than a decade. Thus in America we are also fascinated with who she was before the presidency. This is perhaps more prevalent in the current age, when women wear many hats and are judged on their ability as both hostess and lawyer. The First Lady does not have a “job” per se. No election placed her in the executive mansion and she signed no contract stating that she would perform certain duties as first lady. How was she to know when she married decades earlier that she would become the wife of the president? Some may dispute that last comment, citing a few ambitious women as decisive factors in their husbands’ campaigns. Nevertheless, people are interested in whether or not the president’s wife is the kind of woman who has led the kind of life they can respect.

This leads us to the first lady’s occupation as official role model to an entire nation. It is like the expectations placed upon a mother, only multiplied by a few million, for now she is to serve as an example to the nation’s young girls of style and power, of good sense and good behavior. No parent really tells his daughter that she should hope to be a first lady someday – that’s not really the kind of thing for which one can plan. Yet, Americans are duly scandalized at any seemingly improper behavior. Far from casting a cynical eye on Americans’ double standards, I think this might be beneficial. It at least proves we still have a cultural standard, even if many of us fall short of it. We still want a public figure to hold strong beliefs without being bossy, to attend to familial responsibilities, and to have a cause she fights for. This is why the first lady’s charity is a fixture of the presidency. The public eye is sleepless, and so the first lady attempts to direct it towards an act of virtue.

Tocqueville praised the American woman for her many virtues. She is described as the guardian of civil society, family, morality, religion, and education. In short, things not purely political. Without these goods, political society would not exist, and yet the rational and deliberate nature of politics cannot rule this sphere and fails whenever it tries. The first lady, however, is an embodiment of these virtues. She is described first in terms of a relationship, the one she holds to the president, even if it is niece or sister instead of wife. People choose to be Democrat or Republican – they know if they are a brother, daughter, or mother. Politicians often tell us how valuable individual charitable action is outside of government actions, and then they spend all their time passing legislation. First ladies engage in personal benevolent work. First ladies today have generally pursued a career in their own right, showing that the job of a career politician is not the only valuable position. Thus the First Lady is an amalgam of the elements of American life not restricted to laws and the public sphere. In this unique way, she completes the president in the American imagination.

It mustn’t be forgotten that the office of First Lady has some fun attached to it, as well. Perhaps the next time I am asked who I want to spend an hour with, I will choose Jackie Kennedy or Nancy Reagan. Because of course, I want to ask them which their favorite gown was.

Rebekah Sherman is a senior from Ashland, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and History.

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