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?”