When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he flaunted an unusual selling point: his wife, Hillary. “Two for the price of one,” he was fond of repeating on the campaign trail. Though Mr. Clinton was referring to her qualifications and unusually significant political role—she remains the only First Lady ever to maintain an office in the West Wing—presidential couples always present voters “two for the price of one.”
Presidents’ spouses fulfill a variety of official responsibilities: They manage paid staffers, promote non-partisan causes, and entertain White House visitors. Crucially, the First Lady is unpaid, and, as former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson once quipped, “elected by one person—her husband.”
As every new election raises the prospect of a man in the office of First Lady, this amorphous role has become awkward and archaic: The presidential spouse should be absolved of public obligations altogether. The position of First Lady evolved within the context of a society that could not imagine a woman in power or a president’s wife with a high-powered career, relegating her to the domestic sphere. It devalued traditionally feminine tasks such as event planning, deeming them unworthy of monetary compensation.
The position of First Lady evolved within the context of a society that could not imagine a woman in power or a president’s wife with a high-powered career, relegating her to the domestic sphere.
Feminist advances have allowed successive presidential spouses to expand their public profiles, becoming vocal advocates for women’s and children’s issues. Thus, some have argued, as Professor Jean H. Baker proposed in the New York Times, that the office should “be defined as a paid public position, with salary and expectations.”
However, this change would only affirm the expectation for women to subsume their identities into those of their powerful husbands. If the role of the presidential spouse is a “full-time job,” as Baker claims, he or she would likely be compelled to relinquish their existing occupation, just as Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton gave up prestigious positions. Yet, a life of visiting elementary schools or choosing flower arrangements for the next White House dinner may not appeal to every spouse. Furthermore, since the First Lady is eligible for office by virtue of being married to the president, greater politicization inevitably bumps up against charges of nepotism.
A far simpler solution would be to abolish the office and treat the presidential spouse as a normal private citizen. After all, the position is dispensable. German chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband, a theoretical physicist, has eschewed the public eye so unwaveringly that a German newspaper once labelled him “as invisible as a molecule,” a practice that has not impeded the smooth functioning of the German state.
We can only free ourselves of the sexist assumptions and stereotypes that currently underlie the role of First Lady if we free presidential spouses from public servitude.
The United States can and should follow suit. We can only free ourselves of the sexist assumptions and stereotypes that currently underlie the role of First Lady if we free presidential spouses from public servitude.