Trump’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, has said that the first lady is “doing really well.” In an email to NPR late last month, Grisham said, “We’ve been going over her initiatives and other long-term planning for events such as the congressional picnic and 4th of July.” On Monday, Grisham announced that Trump won’t travel with the president to Canada, for the G-7 summit, or to Singapore, where he’ll meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
But while Trump’s appearances have been few and far between, her behavior isn’t actually all that unusual in the context of the country’s broader presidential history. Former first ladies like Truman, and the very first, Martha Washington, occupied quiet offices—and they were afforded the freedom to shape them as they pleased.
“There’s an expectation that first ladies will build upon and enlarge what previous first ladies did,” said Stacy Cordery, a professor of history at Iowa State University. “But in fact we only feel that way because the first lady has no job description.” As our colleague Alex Wagner reported, Melania Trump doing things “her own way” has led to the left creating fantasies about her—ones that eclipse the far more likely possibility that Trump, like many first ladies past, simply wants to be left alone.
But following years of public-facing first ladies, can Melania Trump take her own approach to the role and still be deemed successful? Or have America’s expectations of the first lady grown into something so immutable as to render any deviation from recent precedent a failure?
A few weeks before Donald Trump won the presidency, Betty Caroli, the author of First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, took up the question: “What kind of first lady would Melania be?” She wrote that “Melania Trump’s idea of a first lady is much like the one Americans embraced in the 1950s,” which was allowed to be a more private role. Well into the second year of her husband’s presidency, Caroli wrote in an email to The Atlantic that she believes her prediction has come true.
Reports have indicated that the first ladyship wasn’t something Trump wanted. It wouldn’t be an unusual sentiment. First ladies, particularly throughout the early 20th century, expressed similar feelings of discontent with the role. “Melania’s not at all unprecedented looking at the long term, if you’re talking about women who felt dragged into this role unwillingly,” said Cormac O’Brien, the author of Secret Lives of the First Ladies.
Martha Washington famously compared being first lady to being a “state prisoner,” though she did eventually embrace official duties, such as hosting foreign dignitaries. Trump recently garnered praise for hosting French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, at a state dinner this past April.
There may be no more apt comparison for Melania Trump than Bess Truman, who, like Trump, followed a well-liked and politically engaged predecessor. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first to give regular press conferences, and was highly involved in humanitarian issues and women’s rights; a 2014 survey conducted by Siena College and C-SPAN deemed Roosevelt “America’s Best First Lady.”