Could Melania Trump be challenging the traditional First Lady script? She’s living in New York with her youngest son and recently declined to accompany her Japanese counterpart Akie Abe when she was visited Washington. Is Mrs. Trump planning to remake the East Wing?
There’s no job description or salary for the First Lady. The Constitution is silent about her. Still, we have a sense of what the position means based on seeing the role in action over the past 241 years. The First Lady was the nation’s hostess and housekeeper even before the White House was completed. She has social and ceremonial obligations that include welcoming visitors from all walks of life to the Executive Mansion and keeping that home and its furnishings in top shape. Fulfilling these duties reflect not only on the President, but also on the nation. In this sense, the First Lady is expected to exemplify traditional femininity. She’s the keeper of home and hearth, inhabiting the domestic sphere, like women have done since the Industrial Revolution.
Of course, as women’s roles have expanded, the First Lady’s obligations also have morphed. She no longer can confine herself to the domestic setting, unless she wants to jeopardize her standing, and, as a result, that of her husband. Like many women in today’s world, the First Lady must balance the demands of home and work. But for the First Lady, “the workplace” is less a locale and more a portfolio of issues that walk a fine line between Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In and Martha Stewart Living. As a consequence, some First Ladies select uncontroversial gender appropriate causes, such as Nancy Reagan’s campaign urging young people to “just say no” to drugs. The clearest evidence of the tightrope First Ladies must walk is the backlash they encounter for deviating from the traditional script. Betty Ford, for example, made the mistake of approving of cohabitation and sex outside of marriage in an interview on “60 Minutes,” triggering an avalanche of hate mail and public critiques not only of her, but also her husband’s ability to lead the nation. After all, if Gerald Ford couldn’t control his wife, how could he run the nation?
Fast forward to Michelle Obama, who, after being vilified on the campaign trail in 2008 as “Mrs. Grievance,” Mr. Obama’s “baby mama,” and a massive Afro-wearing, flag burning, semi-automatic rifle toting revolutionary, transformed into the most popular public official of the last Administration. She tap-danced all over that fine line with her issues of childhood obesity, military families, and education for girls around the world. Moreover, the East Wing had a knack for taking advantage of the media–new and old–to spread Mrs. Obama’s message, for example, promoting the “Let’s Move” initiative through Mom Dancing on the Tonight Show or a Google +Hangout.
Which brings us back to Melania Trump. She has identified cyberbullying and the rights of women and children as possible causes, but has yet to staff fully the East Wing. As a result, tours of the White House are not available, nor has planning begun with respect to state dinners. Mrs. Trump also is in litigation, apparently a First Lady “first.” She has alleged that Maryland blogger Webster Tarpley and Britain’s Daily Mail defamed her, in part, by claiming that she was a sex worker in the past. According to the complaint, the defendants’ actions injured her reputation and “caused substantial damage to her business career, reputation, and her actual and prospective business relationships.” The harms Mrs. Trump asserts suggest that she will continue her entrepreneurial endeavors, which also would be a departure for First Ladies.
But, I also should note that right after the kerfuffle about Mrs. Abe’s solo tour through DC, Mrs. Trump visited the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Florida with the prime minister’s wife. In addition, her senior staff adviser Stephanie Winston Wolkoff announced that Mrs. Trump:
has a deep personal commitment to her role as caretaker and nurturer, beginning with her family. She believes there is a connection between a child’s mind and places of calm and beauty to be used as a tool for us all. As a mother and as the First Lady of this country, Mrs. Trump is committed to the preservation and continuation of the White House Gardens, specifically the First Lady’s Kitchen Garden and the Rose Garden.
So, once again, in an imitation is the sincerest form of flattery move, Mrs. Trump has suggested that she’s not quite ready to throw off all the aspects of traditional First Lady–at least one in the mold of Mrs. Obama.
Still, for the spouse of a former candidate whose crude comments about sexual assault blew up in the 2016 campaign to upset this most traditional gender role would be quite the ironic turn.
We’ll have to wait and see.
This piece was based, in part, on my article, “The First (Black) Lady,” which appeared in the Denver University Law Review in 2008.