What do Jacqueline Kenendy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama all have in common? They paused, or gave up, their careers to help progress their husbands' political ambitions.
As Dr Jill Biden gave her speech at the DNC on Tuesday to support her husband’s nomination, people were quick to say that they thought she would make a much better first lady than the current woman in the “office”?
This poses the question: why should it matter?
As there has never been a female US president or vice president – although Kamala Harris may soon change this – the first lady is, unfortunately, one of the most prominent roles that a woman has held.
There have been notable steps forward on the Supreme Court and there have been several female Secretaries of State. But the lack of female president, combined with the continued the presence of the FLOTUS role as some sort of "consolation prize", entrenches an idea that a woman can only hold influence if her husband is powerful too. The term also normalises the idea that a having a wife is a requirement to run for the highest office in government.
Why do we have a first lady?
The FLOTUS (First lady of the United States) moniker comes with presenting a classical American hetero “family values” look: a loving wife who has one inoffensive side-project and can decorate Christmas trees. Melania Trump, for instance, plans to speak to the RNC next week from the "newly renovated White House Rose Garden", which we're expected to view as some sort of monumental achievement.
This is not to say that some first ladies haven't done great things. Eleanor Roosevelt was an incredible person all-around and Betty Ford was a major advocate of the ERA and spoke openly about legalising abortion. And no first ladies have changed the game quite like Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, who both became global icons.
But this is exactly the point – and part of the reason why I think, after this election, we should retire the 'first lady' role.
Many wives of presidents are very accomplished in their own right. It is painfully obvious to me that the intense pressure for them to put their lives on pause to host dinner parties and be judged on their fashion choices is outdated.
At the time, former first lady Laura Bush said in a C-SPAN interview that a "first gentlemen" might be the catalyst for change, because a male spouse would be less likely to stop working and assume hostessing duties. “Imagine if there was a title for the wife of a CEO. Say, “LCEO” for Lady of CEO,” said a paper on the DYSKE blog, demonstrating the absurdity of the position.
First Ladies are essentially required to have a 'pet project', which feels patronising.
Melania Trump has her anti-cyber bullying “BE BEST” campaign, Michelle Obama focussed on childhood obesity, and Laura Bush focused on childhood literacy. These campaigns stick to a traditional women and children's-interest advocacy role, and would never move beyond to something more politically weighty.
FLOTUS, unlike POTUS, are essentially required to be fashionable, even if people don't say that out loud anymore.
People love to mainly focus on the FLOTUS' fashion sense: just consider Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pink Chanel suit or the unending "Michelle Obama's best looks" articles. On the flip side of that they are also targeted for appearance-based criticism. (Someone on Fox Newssuggested that Michelle Obama “drop a few” before promoting childhood nutrition).
Beyond their fashion sense, first ladies are expected to fulfil a matriarchal role: to be sweet and not too forceful. And it now feels like this is holding women back.
After Jill Biden spoke on Tuesday, a highly-favourited viral tweet read, “My Wife just now, ‘Jill Biden is going to give America a Mommy again. It's what we need.’”
But is this really what we need in 2020?
After all, the notion of a first lady doesn't even exist in many other countries.
In France, following Emmanuel Macron's election as president, he proposed that his wife be given a similar title, along with budget and staff. This was met with fierce resistance and a petition against the idea garnered 275,000 signatures, so the idea was shelved. In the UK there's no first lady either, and they’re better off for it. Do you have any sense of what Cherie Blair or Sarah Brown wore on a daily basis? That’s because they didn't have a requirement to fulfil any “duties” that are related to their husband’s job. That said, this may be because many of the duties filled by an American first lady are fulfilled by members of the UK royal family. And some Britons were aghast when Meghan Markle wasn’t ready to play the part.
Ultimately, paying special attention to a person because of who she’s married to is highly reductive. Jill Biden should go back to work as a teacher (if she feels like it) if her husband gets a new job, whether Michelle Obama showed her bare arms should be neither-here-nor-there. And who cares if Melania Trump stayed in New York to raise her son or lives in the White House?
To all of these women who were never elected to do anything political, I say, let them live!
Let's move with the times retire the outdated first lady role for good.