Picture this. An incredibly intelligent, hard-working and impassioned woman sacrificing her own successful career for the betterment of her husbands. Sounds familiar? Then you've probably been following American politics.
It's tricky to define the role of First Lady. From the original first few, such as Martha Dandridge or Dolley Payne, to the present day, the role expectations have changed a lot, but not changed enough. With no official role, First Ladies have been required to sacrifice their own careers and face a lack of professional fulfilment in order to undertake responsibilities remnant of a time when women were entirely defined by their relationship with a man. The current expectations of the First Lady are ill- defined, seeing her carry out trite and tedious tasks such as hosting events at the White House, forging connections for her husband and furthering his political agenda; responsibilities which are well beneath the successful women which frequently occupy the post. Believe me, I know it would be a privilege to be in their financial or social state, but it's what the role represents and its cultural reflections of a patriarchal society that irks me the most.
Perhaps the clearest way of understanding how this can be seen as a problem is through the fact that there are no such expectations for the husbands of leaders, underlining the chauvinistic consensus of today's world. There are no hosting duties, no consort expectations and above all, no shock that they are more than their title. Joachim Sauer, for example, is the spouse of Angela Merkel. Despite her success as Chancellor of Germany for the past eleven years, Sauer has felt no obligation to leave his position as a Professor and full time chemist. A case of double standards if ever there was one!
With this in mind, a few admirable First Ladies throughout history have, in fact, distanced themselves from the typical duties expected from them, deciding instead to branch out on their own and pursue their own causes. Of course, I could not write this without mentioning Eleanor Roosevelt. Wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady from 1933 to 1945, Eleanor established herself as a keen activist. From navigating 'The New Deal' to benefit women, to supporting minority groups, Roosevelt did it all. Unsurprisingly, she has been polled as the most popular First Lady in history. For me personally, the most admirable quality of Eleanor was her candour, which saw her speak publicly against her husband's policies in order to support cases such as the civil rights movement. This, in my eyes, is a perfect model of a women who is not defined by her husband.
We also have Michelle Obama, the 44th First Lady of the United States who, too, is making a difference. An accomplished woman in her own right (first and foremost being a well-established lawyer), she has successfully had an impact on the perception of women in politics whilst also erasing the anachronistic connotations surrounding the title. Michelle has started numerous schemes such as 'Let's Move' and 'Joining Forces', and most recently 'Let Girls Learn', a global initiative aimed at providing education for girls all around the world. Her friendly and compelling nature paired with the fact that she has single-handedly changed the mold for her successors (fingers crossed it's not Melania Trump) makes her hard to fault. Furthermore, she speaks out about being black in America today, encouraging others to have ambition and fight the harsh prejudices thrust upon them. She embodies excellence in everything she does and is a strong role model for girls and women of every age. Don't get me wrong though, not everything is perfect. She is still famed for topping 'best dressed' charts or more likely to reach the news for showing some skin than for her work, but she is still changing the game with her support for campaigns which aren't necessarily cohesive with her husband's agenda. For this, I admire her.
From my perspective, the saddest thing is perhaps that we are still having to ask these questions. We are still having to challenge the idea. Forty-four First Ladies later and the role is still as outdated as it was under the Founding Fathers. I'm not necessarily stating that First Ladies deserve more political influence, simply that they should not have to conform with the outdated stereotype forced upon them. Perhaps a more twenty first century appropriate title, allowing them to shed their outdated expectations and use their platform for good, would reflect them in a truer sense?
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