FEATURES | spring 2004
Who Needs First Ladies?
by Ellen Hawkes
Be grateful, as they say, for small favors. As the presidential primary season winds down — some 14 states hold late primaries between March 23 and June 8 — and a likely Democratic nominee emerges, we can at least say that we have survived The Great American First Lady Analysis.
Blame the national exercise on poor Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean. Back when Vermont Governor Howard Dean was riding high as the front runner — before a single primary vote was cast — Dr. Steinberg explained her absence on the campaign trail with what she clearly thought was a reasonable story: She wasn’t at her husband’s side on planes and trains because she was, um, working.
She was tending to her busy medical practice in Vermont and was perfectly happy to do so.
Thus began the media storm, the national conversation, if you will, about The Role of First Lady, with the attendant undercurrent of a discussion of women’s and wives’ roles in general.
“Physician, heal thy spouse,” declared Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, in one of the more incoherent rantings. The Wall Street Journal’s June Kronholz rightly noted the catch-22 of the role, a societal ambivalence with which a first lady is viewed. “If she’s independent, we’re wary. If she’s a prop, that’s worse. A big career is an asset, unless she won’t give it up,” wrote Kronholz.
The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, a member of the editorial page staff, wrote, “I wonder whether the country is quite ready for Judith Steinberg, with or without the Dean.”
Lending a strange bedfellows air to the discussion were the sources of support for Dr. Steinberg’s position. Feminists, obviously, noted she should make her own decisions and welcomed a woman who seemed to decide against giving up her career because of her spouse. But Laura Bush in The New York Times also applauded Dr. Steinberg and seemed surprised that she would have been criticized. “I think it’s great. ... I mean it seems like people would admire that,” said Mrs. Bush.
Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal featured stories with either headlines or graphics proclaiming “Better Halves.” It all was enough to make a feminist check the calendar: What year are we living in?
First spouse or friend or what??
Jacqueline Kennedy once said, “The one thing I do not want to be called is First Lady. It sounds like a saddle horse.” The question, of course, is What is it, this role? There has never been a “job description” for the position; it was not written into the Constitution, and it has evolved over time (with pendulum swings between “ceremonial” and “activist” first ladies). Citing King Charles I’s use of Queen Henrietta Maria to legitimize his rule, writer Nick Gillespie notes that historically, “consorts are a relic of monarchy and, as such, have no proper place in a republic, any more than inherited titles, prima nocta, or tax-free living. That’s the real reason why Americans have always, deep down, suffered First Ladys rather than embraced them.”
An institution freighted with symbolism, it is both a reflection of changing roles and images of women and a blank screen upon which attitudes toward women are projected, and often such views are contradictory, ambivalent and controversial.
In any event, when the term actually came into common usage it carried with it the previous century’s Victorian notions of gentility, demure “ladylike” behavior and duties limited to White House hostess and a “Lady Bountiful”engaging in charitable good works. But those connotations weren’t at all what early presidents had in mind when they and the public tried to find a title for the president’s wife (many were used, including Lady Presidentress, Madame President, Queen Dolley — for Dolley Madison — and, in the case of Mary Todd Lincoln, Mrs. President).
“The term was anachronistic from the beginning,” explains Catherine Allgor, the author of Parlor Politics and an assistant professor of history at the University of California, Riverside. “Martha Washington was called ‘Lady Washington’ not as in ‘be-a-lady’ but as in ‘Lady Astor.’ The early leaders wanted the trappings of aristocracy to reassure people that this new democracy was stable and that they were being ruled by the right ‘people.’ The president was called ‘Mister President,’ but his wife held the title ‘Lady,’ which was not meant to trivialize her role as the mistress, if you will, of the unofficial sphere where a lot of politics get done.”
Like so much of women’s work (both because it is often in the private domain and unpaid), the importance of many first ladies’ contributions to their husbands’ presidencies has often been hidden from history.
The trivialization of the role has changed. “The reason we ought to care about first ladies is that their power has always been important,” said John B. Roberts II, the author of Rating the First Ladies and a former Regan White House advisor and consulting television producer. “In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, attitudes about the roles of women and feminine stereotypes often meant that the focus was on the ‘fluff’ of the first ladys, and thus their political significance was overlooked. In fact, the majority of first ladies have been politically active in their husbands’ careers, and it is as a political partner that the first ladies are of the greatest interest.”
Does it matter?
Despite all the attention paid to presidential candidates’ spouses, no polls or surveys of voting patterns have shown that wives influence whom the public elects as president. Peter Harris, head of the Peter Harris Research Group and son of pollster Louis Harris, reports that in the few studies of the subject conducted by him and his father, they have found “little or no effect,” and thus the prospective first lady “seems to be a non-factor in presidential elections, even among women.”
Robert P. Watson, professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University, founding editor of White House Studies and author of four books about first ladies and the institution, reports similar findings. “No study or statistical survey has concluded that voters choose the president according to whom they’re married. In the rare case of Hillary Clinton, the ‘first lady factor’ may have influenced some votes; in contrast, though, Betty Ford’s growing popularity as first lady did not translate to votes in Gerald Ford’s election campaign. But the consensus among scholars of the presidency and political analysts is that the effect of first ladies on the outcome of the election is absolutely negligible.”
Yet, as the controversy prompted by Judith Steinberg Dean’s lack of participation in her husband’s campaign confirms, voters still want to see candidates’ wives by their sides on the campaign trail.
Moreover, there may be some historical precedent for the role of first ladies as recruitment tool. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has said studies showed that African Americans, when they moved from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party in 1936 and 1940, may have done so largely because of Eleanor Roosevelt and not Franklin. In fact, it may be one of the visceral things that are notoriously difficult to measure in public opinion polling. When we learn about a candidate’s character, what he or she is like, we want to know about a spouse or partner. The unanswered question is whether what we learn is likely to change the way we vote.
“The first lady is a significant factor in campaigns because people have been conditioned to take a measure of a person based on what they know of the wife, even sometimes of the family,” explains Myra Gutin, first lady historian and professor of communications at Rider University. “Potential first ladies — and the first lady once her husband is elected — then become a target of criticism if she seems to go beyond the traditional definitions of her responsibilities and becomes involved in policy making or in issues that are more controversial.”
The wives of the leading Democratic presidential hopefuls, past and present, may all define the office and institution in their own ways. But it seems equally clear that any dramatic breaking of new ground will not occur until we elect a woman president. Having the first “Madame President” would require a serious reconsideration of what the spouse’s office is, from deciding what to call her husband (first husband? first spouse? first gentleman?) to determining what responsibilities he might have, and even whether he could pursue his own career if his wife were president (and, much like Dennis Thatcher, remain an essentially invisible man). Only through that momentous step would we begin to understand the extent to which feminine stereotypes and old-fashioned attitudes toward women are imposed on first ladies. Even in 2004, such perceptions still seem to constrain and limit what the public expects from, or accepts in, the White House partnership.
So given this cultural maelstrom, what do the women in the crosshairs themselves think of the role? Ms. asked the wives of the Democratic frontrunners for comments, and we also asked to speak with Laura Bush. We never heard back from Mrs. Bush. We did, however, speak to Teresa Heinz Kerry and Elizabeth Edwards.
What should be the role of the First Lady?
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