Discarding the Idea of a First Lady

By Suzanne Fields

December 2, 2016 6 min read

The role of first lady is out of date, an anachronism and benign nepotism at best. At worst it's an unelected appendage to the president. In Donald Trump time, when all assumptions are subject to revision, the time is right to think again about the ultimate "wife of."

Melania Trump has done us a favor by postponing her arrival in Washington, D.C. She doesn't want to disrupt the school year in New York City for their 10-year-old son, Barron. She wants to be a mother first. Fair enough. No one elected her to anything, anyway, and she's got her priorities straight. Donald Trump represents the party of family values, so she should fit right in.

The most ferocious critics of her decision rebuke and reprove from Manhattan, where never is heard an encouraging word for anything Trump. The beautiful people hate the traffic jams they expect at Trump Tower, but their concerns don't count for much. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is looking for ways to be reimbursed for the costs of the Donald's visits, which have made business as usual impossible.

New York is not Plains, Georgia, population 776, whence came Jimmy Carter; nor is it Little Rock, Arkansas, from which Bill Clinton sprang; nor Independence, Missouri, where Bess Truman frequently took refuge from Washington, D.C. Presidential homeplaces of all sizes have to take their lumps when the trappings of fame and power intrude. Neighbors in the affluent Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where the Obamas will live post-White House, aren't so pleased about the coming invasion of gawkers either.

Besides, it will only be a short trip from New York to Washington, D.C., when Melania Trump is needed for a significant social gathering, or to have a quiet dinner in the White House with her husband. First lady staffs, which typically run from a few to a few dozen, are necessary to smooth the path of a celebrity "wife of" in the modern media culture. But unless she decides to become active in politics, a small staff should be all she needs.

Rethinking the role of the first lady may upset some traditionalists, but the role was never rooted in tradition. Rather, it was improvised as an extra-constitutional position dependent on who was married to the first gentleman. Perceptions of women were different then. The real power of the president's wife has always come from pillow talk, and we're not privy to that.

In the beginning, no one knew what to call the wife of the president. Martha Washington was sometimes called Lady Washington, pomp and pomposity having lingered in the imaginations of young Democrats in the fledgling republic. She refused to talk politics, choosing to charm rather than engage her husband's official company.

Abigail Adams, who followed Washington, was ridiculed by her husband's enemies for loyally supporting his views. When he was away, she kept him apprised of the political machinations against him. Dolley Madison intruded herself diplomatically into the social life of politics, entertaining friends and keeping her husband's enemies close to train an eagle eye on both.

Not all first ladies limited themselves to being helpmates. When a stroke felled Woodrow Wilson, his wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, became his understudy, without a rehearsal. Critics were outraged when she determined who met with the president and accused her of running a "petticoat government." Eleanor Roosevelt was censured for her personal observations as her husband's "eyes and ears," and she traveled into slums, fields and even coal mines to champion his New Deal projects. She held press conferences with women of the press.

First ladies flourished with that title through several presidencies, often inviting ridicule, sycophancy and power. Jackie Kennedy forbade her staff to call her first lady because she thought it made her sound like a saddle horse, and she fled her duties in Washington as often as she could. Since her husband pursued clandestine assignations — not necessarily to discuss the farm bill or a crisis in Kenya — it was her escape from more than politics.

Bill and Hillary Clinton campaigned for the presidency with the slogan "Buy one, get one free." When he put her in charge of health care and she held secret meetings that produced only controversy, the public soon recognized a bad bargain. Hillary Clinton thought this year she would have to find a project for the first dude, and the idea of making work for a "husband of" became a joke.

Melania Trump suggests that as first lady she will focus on cyberbullying. It's good enough, if a bit contrived. (Trump haters suggest she start with her husband's tweeting.) A confident woman who's fluent in five languages and enjoyed a successful career in modeling, she prefers her privacy to the limelight and wants to be full-time mother. We should just let Melania be Melania. But you know we won't.

Write to Suzanne Fields at [email protected] Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's "Paradise Lost." To find out more about Suzanne Fields and read her past columns, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

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