When Bill Clinton was sworn in as president, his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to give up her partnership at a law firm. When Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president, his wife Michelle had to walk away from her $212k annual salary to perform the unpaid “duties” of the First Lady. We feel entitled to the time, energy, and economic opportunities of women, to their detriment. Assuming no raises or additional compensation, Obama sacrificed about $1.7 million to be constantly subjected to sexual and racial hatred.
The position of First Lady has not changed substantially in the 228 years since Martha Washington was dragooned into the role. It is still an unpaid, public, highly structured, and heavily scrutinized job expected of the wives of presidents. It is an inherently gendered title, and I suspect cultural discomfort with seeing a man and former president in the role played a part in our current situation.
We knew how to say “Madame President” if Hillary Clinton’s popular win had counted, as it should have. But we did not know what to call Bill, how to address a male First Lady. First Lord, First Laddie, First Gentleman? Nothing had the familiar ring of two and a quarter centuries of sexist tradition. For all that she is foreign born, heavily accented, and apparently quite shy, Melania looked the part of “Lady” in our collective consciousness in a way Bill never could.
In all 49 women – all women – have maintained the social and domestic lives of 45 presidents – all men. I wonder if America might sooner stomach a lesbian couple in the White House than see a man perceived as virile degraded by association with feminity and women’s work. It’s easier to imagine Michelle Obama in the Oval Office than Barack poring over seating charts for a state dinner.
Melania Trump is a wealthy woman who has grown accustomed to a pampered life as wife of a realty heir, who exploits countless tenants, contractors, and employees. After a year of disruption on the campaign trail, she wanted to return to that lifestyle. Instead we are collectively dragging her to Washington for our service, scrutiny, and hostess services. In return she will lose freedom, privacy, and opportunities to earn income.