What's the Point of a First Lady?

Fifty years ago, Lady Bird Johnson transformed the role of presidential spouse from hostess to political powerhouse, but the job is due for another reinvention.

Frank Muto/Courtesy of LBJ Library

Fifty years ago today, Lady Bird Johnson set off on a four day, 47-town solo whistle-stop tour to campaign on behalf of her husband in the South. It had been less than a year since John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas and less than three months since Lyndon Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act, and it was thought to be too dangerous for the president himself to make the trip. Nationally syndicated columnist Max Freedman wondered, "Perhaps this marks the emergence of women as central figures in a national contest instead of being on the edges of a campaign."

It was the first time a first lady had gone on a campaign trail without her husband. Lady Bird spoke to half a million people, and Lyndon ended up carrying most of the South in November. And it’s now obvious that Freedman was right—Johnson was the first modern first lady. Today, however, the role of the presidential spouse today is in need of another reboot.

Lady Bird Johnson was well suited to modernizing the role of the first lady. By 1934, she had earned two back-to-back honors degrees from the University of Texas, when male enrollment outnumbered female four to one. She bought a small media company with a $17,000 inheritance and managed it independently throughout the course of her marriage. By the time her husband became president, it was worth $9 million. She helped finance his first campaign for Congress and managed his House office for eight months while he was serving in World War II.

A 1964 Time cover story quoted Robert Kennedy as admitting, “Lady Bird carried Texas for us” in the extremely tight 1960 election. Yet the same article also said “her nose is a bit too long, her mouth a bit too wide, her ankles a bit less than trim, and she is not outstanding at clothesmanship.”

Things have gotten better since then, but not by much. First ladies are notoriously targeted for appearance-based criticism (just last month, a talking head on Fox News suggested that Michelle Obama “drop a few” before promoting childhood nutrition). But today, it’s not just the way they look. Since the role has morphed into something more than mere hostessing but less than an elected official, there’s a wide range in which to castigate them for not doing enough.

Michelle Obama’s career as a Harvard-educated lawyer and her near-perfect performance on the campaign trail made her appear poised to be able to hit that very narrow target of being an effective—but not overreaching—first lady. She even hinted at keeping her job—a 2008 article reported her as saying that she sees the role of the first lady as a full time commitment, but that “she reserved the right to change her mind if she gets there.”

Once in office, though, she visibly played it cautious, working only two or three days of the week and sticking to the traditional women’s and children’s-interest advocacy role. Since then, she has been labeled everything from absent to a feminist nightmare. Earlier this year, former White House Assistant Press Secretary Reid Cherlin outlined how Obama’s star faded when she became first lady because she was constrained by the very office everyone thought she could change. “That the position of first lady has become embarrassingly anachronistic is no big revelation,” Cherlin wrote. “But after the 2008 victory, there were hopes that Michelle Obama’s political appeal and charisma would enable her to transform it into something that reflected the role of modern women as equal participants in the political process.” (Jill Biden, however, is the first second lady in history to keep her job.)

Why are journalists still asking the same questions about how first ladies can confirm women’s status as equal participants in the political process, 50 years later? Perhaps a better question is how much we can ask presidential spouses to do that when the position itself isn’t official—much less paid.

President Obama recently made an offhand comment during a conversation about the need for equal pay where he used Michelle’s name to represent all women, but then realized his mistake: “I will say, the first lady is kind of a bad example, because the first lady doesn’t get paid. And she works pretty hard.” He quickly soft-pedaled the remark, adding, “Obviously, we’re okay.”

Laura Bush recently mused in a C-SPAN interview that a first gentlemen might be the catalyst for change, because a male spouse would be less likely to stop working and assume hostessing duties. While stopping short of calling for a salary for the first spouse, Bush challenged the expectation that presidential spouses quit their jobs: “I think that’s really the question we should ask, is should she have a career during those years that her husband is president in addition to serving as first lady?”

A potential Hillary Clinton presidential run presents the possibility of not only a first gentleman but also of a former first lady starting a political career and rising to the highest office in the nation. But the Clinton role-reversing possibility is complicated because of the couple’s first tenure in the White House. As first lady, Hillary elevated the position to a new height when she was appointed to lead her husband’s task force on health-care reform; she faced criticism and even litigation challenging her role in the proceedings, but eventually won when a judge ruled that the first lady is “the functional equivalent of a Government employee.” And as a former president, Bill’s job is already much like one of a first lady—speechmaking and running a charity—yet he might be legally required to forgo parts of his job because they would constitute conflict of interest, making him unlikely to become the catalyst for change that Laura Bush predicts.

Serving as first lady, as it stands, is an unpaid role in which a woman is expected to manage a staff—in recent terms it has been of around 15 people—and perform duties as both the White House hostess and champion of some cause, usually related to women or children. Because there has never been a female president, vice president, or even chief of staff, it’s the most prominent and public office in the West Wing that a woman has held. Outlining and acknowledging the work that the presidential spouse is expected to do would help to mitigate the disproportionate criticism faced by any woman who occupies this office.

Lady Bird Johnson’s barnstorm across the South wasn’t the only milestone of her tenure. She was the first first lady to have a press secretary or publish a memoir. At a time when only 30 percent of married women had jobs, she didn’t just reflect the modern woman; she led by example.

But a combination of her personality, extenuating circumstances, and support from the administration provided her the chance to make these small but significant changes. Instead of expecting one woman—or man—to revolutionize the office of the presidential spouse, perhaps it would be more productive to recognize how ill-suited the position is to the 21st century and come up with something else. There’s precedent for shaking up the West Wing—after all, the chief of staff has only been around since 1946. A new iteration of the role would have to involve a salary, and an official appointment—below Cabinet level, but representative of the spouse’s interests (and probably not as much of a political landmine as universal health care). Nor would it be obligatory—it would be something that could be declined if the spouse wanted to keep his or her job and stick to performing traditional host duties. There are plenty of options, but anything would be better than saying nothing and expecting everything.

In 1965, Lady Bird wrote in her diary about her role, “The problem for me is: What shall I interest myself in and how much? The Head Start idea has such hope and challenge. Maybe I could help focus public attention in a favorable way on some aspect of Lyndon’s poverty program.”

A 2008 Guardian op-ed predicting Michelle Obama would be the most successful first lady in decades observed that “you have to go all the way back to Lady Bird Johnson to find a first lady that was happy in her position.” Lady Bird certainly seems to have figured out exactly what to get involved in, and the more difficult question of how much. Head Start became one of the War on Poverty’s most successful and long-lasting programs. Edward Ziegler, one of the planners of the program, later wrote, “Once Lady Bird decided to hold a White House tea to kick off the program, the whole country began to join in the excitement.” After the event, the program has 200,000 volunteers and the original budget of $18 million grew to $150 million.

Half a century later, Americans are still using Head Start, and still asking the same questions Lady Bird did about the role of a presidential wife. Answering them would show young girls what a woman’s career is worth.