The role of the first lady of the United States has changed dramatically throughout history. Beginning as merely the hostess and fashion leader of the nation, the position of the first lady has grown and they are now expected to influence policy and advocate for social and political causes (Anthony 2). The American media and public expect first ladies to advocate for a cause but not to be too politically influential; the public doesn’t want them to become “Mrs. President” or “first lady president” (Anthony 2). First ladies use their celebrity status to bring attention to their cause and are often able to use their selected cause to influence an area of policy without seeming overly political.
Starting with Martha Washington, first ladies have adopted social and political issues to better society. These range from protection of minority and women’s rights, to improved housing conditions, better primary and higher education, aid to veterans, improved mental health treatment, environmental protection, anti-drug campaigns, and most recently, the fight against childhood obesity. Through their politically prominent status, first ladies attract media, bring public attention to their causes and issues, and impact or create relevant policies.
First ladies influence policies differently based on their status in relation to their spouse. Satellite status, sponsored status, and autonomous status are the three main positions they take. Satellite status is a woman who remains in her husband’s shadow and does not provide her own ideas. She creates her image through that of her spouse. A first lady with sponsored status is one who is known in society because of her relationship with the president, a widely recognized man. Women with sponsored status can act upon their own issues and itineraries in addition to or separate from of those of their husband. Women with their own agendas who adopt ideas independent of their spouses have autonomous status (Eksterowicz). In addition to their personal status, the first lady’s personal relationship with the president of the United States gives her the unique opportunity to determine the incorporation of her professional policies with his (Eksterowicz). The status of the first lady in relation to her husband affects how she influences policy but also how she is portrayed in the media.
Media coverage of the first lady is dependent on her personal relationship and her professional status with the president. For first ladies with more autonomous status, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosalynn Carter, and Hillary Clinton, the media focuses on their professional role and issues. The media takes a different angle for first ladies with sponsorship status and covers their issue in partnership with their husband’s policy agenda (Ekserowicz). The first lady’s professional role is modulated by that of the president. For first ladies with satellite status and without many advocacy initiatives, such as Bess Truman, Pat Nixon, and Mamie Eisenhower, the press focused on their role as a wife and their personal relationship as a supporter of the president (Ekserowicz). As I noted in a past blog post, media coverage of more politically active first ladies (those with autonomous status) tends to be more negative than that of first ladies who are less politically involved (those with sponsorship status) (Scharrer). However, by focusing on a specific public or social issue, first ladies may avoid the overly political stereotype and instead gain media coverage that centers on their cause.
The first lady uses her prominence and relationship to the president to attract media attention to the issue for which she advocates, which it might not otherwise receive (Anthony 2). Her relationship with and status in terms of the president determine the type and amount of media coverage she receives. The first lady’s issue advocacy is like a loophole in the media’s view of her role as a political figure; it allows her to influence policies while maintaining the image of a hostess, and without seeming like she is as political as her husband. With the changing role of the first lady and the increased expectation of her issue advocacy, it will be interesting to see how the relationship between the media and the first lady evolves. Will the media take a more positive view of political activism by the first lady? We will have to wait and see, but for now, you go girl!
- Anthony, Carl S. America’s Most Influential First Ladies. Minneapolis, MN: The Oliver Press, Inc., 2003. Google Books. Web. 18 Apr. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=50DuJrtoTZsC&oi=fnd&pg=PA7&dq=influential+first+ladies&ots=OXxqpc40_x&sig=jEG2bDHM9uGJfeWX7a26MgmV2OI>.
- Anthony, Carl S. “The Role of the First Lady.” eJournal USA (2008): n. pag. USA.gov. Web. 18 Apr. 2013. <http://www.america.gov/st/elections08-english/2008/September/20080926162204naneerg0.8945886.html>.
- Eksterowicz, Anthony J.Paynter, Kristen. “The Evolution Of The Role And Office Of The First Lady: The Movement Toward Integration With The White House Office.” Social Science Journal 37.4 (2000): 547. MasterFILE Complete. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.
- Scharrer, Erica, and Kim Bissell. “Overcoming Traditional Boundaries: The Role of Political Activity in Media Coverage of First Ladies.” Women in Politics 21.1 (2000): 55–83. Taylor and Francis Online. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1300/J014v21n01_03>.