As an extension of my last blog post and of my final paper, this post will closely examine another scholarly work about first ladies and see how well Michelle Obama aligns.
The “most basic and enduring aspect of the first lady’s role,” the president’s wife is expected to be a host for both America and for foreign diplomats (1). She can use this position to advance her or her husband’s political agenda, like Dolley Madison winning her husband support in the election of 1812 (1). But, the first lady must not be ostentatious or spend recklessly, or she will lose the support of the American public like Mary Todd Lincoln did (1). The modern first ladies are expected to be up on their international affairs to fulfill their duty of a diplomatic hostess (1). Michelle Obama fits all these bills. She has hosted visitors from dozens of countries, met with the Queen of England, thrown countless White House dinners and parties, and connected with the American people all the while.
Advocate for Social Causes
The first lady is first and foremost just that – a lady. As part of her womanly duties, at least in the earlier part of American history, she was expected to contribute to charitable causes, particularly “improving her community, helping the less fortunate and interceding for the powerless” (1). As the societal norms for women evolved, so did the advocacy of the first lady. There has been a transition from supporting traditional women’s issues like the ones listed above to supporting the advocacy and independence of women, like Betty Ford’s backing of the Equal Rights Amendment (1). Modern first ladies since Jackie Kennedy have selected a pet cause to highlight during their term, Jackie’s being White House restoration (1). In the pattern of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No!” campaign against drug use, Michelle Obama has selected the “Let’s Move!” campaign as her personal issue, fighting against childhood obesity (1).
President’s Political Partner
The president and his first lady have long had a tradition of being supportive partners, just like any regular couple. But, how much they choose to publicize this relationship has varied. Some pairs, like Harry and Bess Truman, kept their bond quiet (1). Bess Truman didn’t like media attention, but aides later confirmed that she was influential in her husband’s decisions (1). On the other hand, Bill and Hillary Clinton were quite vocal from the start about her involvement with his politics (1). After drawing much criticism from the press and public, they changed their tune and Hillary took a more demure public role (1). While Michelle and Barack Obama have never made any explicit or controversial comments regarding her influence, we can only assume that she supports and guides him in some way, as suggested by history.
The involvement of first ladies in politics has progressed from leaving the politics to the men to independently campaigning in the place of her husband (1). Candidate’s wives are also used in campaigns to paint a picture of a traditional, loving family, drawing in the support of many female voters (1). Lady Bird Johnson embarked on her own whistle-stop train campaign aboard the Lady Bird Special, raising support in the South for her husband’s election (1). Florence Harding, a former journalist, recognized the importance of public image and carefully crafted photo opportunities for her husband during his campaign (1). As most people at UNC’s campus know, Michelle Obama did some independent campaigning of her own, including her stop here in Chapel Hill.
In the tragic case of a president’s death in office, whether it be from assassination or illness, the first lady becomes the ceremonial leader of the nation in mourning (1). For Mary Todd Lincoln, this duty was too much to bear; she was so overcome with grief, she didn’t attend any of her husband’s funeral events (1). On the contrary, Jackie Kennedy was a vision of strength after her husband’s assassination, standing next to LBJ as he took the oath of office just hours after the tragedy in Dallas (1). She was highly involved in planning the funeral and viewing and participated publicly in his funeral procession (1). Fortunately, we have not had to witness Michelle play this role, and hopefully we never will.
In all, Michelle has succeeded in all the expectations set out before her by first ladies past. While she meets the standard bill, she is also a model of a new first lady and is continuing the development of the changing role. She is even more accessible to the American people, and especially a younger generation, by appearing on shows like Ellen. She a fashion icon similar to Jackie Kennedy; the clothes she and her daughters wear sell out hours after their appearance in them. She has set her own independent agenda from her husbands, while still supporting all his efforts. This evolution of a stronger, independent, young African-American female as a leader in American politics will not only inspire many others to try to achieve the same, but it also reflects the development of society that allowed her to reach these heights.
(1) Mayo, Edith P. and Denise D. Meringolo, “First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image. Smithsonian Institute, 1994. Print.