So a few weeks ago, after months of belabored speculation, Melania Trump finally agreed to move into the White House. Yay! There’s a lady in the White House now and she does NOT get to sit behind the Resolute Desk. That’s right, America. We managed to put a woman right where she belongs: in her taxpayer-funded marital home, standing by her husband’s side while he holds the reins of power.
With that news, in one fell swoop, Melania has put a cruel end to the will-she-won’t-she spate of news stories that have dominated media coverage about her since Inauguration Day. For me, some of these stories have been jolting reminders of the regressive lens through which women in public life are still viewed in this country. And it does not make me feel any better that many such stories were proudly featured on news sites that I would otherwise label as largely liberal. So lets take a look at a few.
There’s the Daily Beast piece that asks “Will Melania Trump Really Be an Absent First Lady?”. The writer acknowledges the possibility that “Melania’s decision to eschew tradition [could] be cheered as a sign of feminist progress.” But you are out of luck on this one, feminists. Because guess what? “[Even] if Melania doesn’t care about fulfilling a visible and active first lady role, Americans do.” Its her (100% unpaid) job, goddammit. In fact, if you squint really, really hard at the Constitution, you may discover in fine print the following little-known words: “Once a disaster happens, the First Lady is traditionally responsible for consoling the country.” (Of course, some may argue that the real disaster already occurred last November and that this particular First Lady cheered it on. So I am not so sure that she is cut out for the role of consoler. But let’s move on.)
In a plainly preposterous piece in Vanity Fair, the writer James Wolcott really wants to know: “Can Melania Trump Ever Be a Great First Lady?” Like his counterpart on the Daily Beast, Wolcott also gives a good-natured shout-out to anti-traditionalists (“Some would say “Good riddance” to the historic partnership role and hostess duties of the First Lady, arguing that it’s an antiquated institution”). But he is not going to just give you the win so easily, you guys. Because, you see, “a woman’s touch is often needed in the White House, whether it’s a steadying hand on the shoulder or a judo chop to the back of the neck.” Yep. Behind every buffoon successfully elected to high office, there lies a silent woman who has no right or reason to want her own identity. But hold on. Its not all bad. First Ladies are allowed to have a voice. After all, “nearly every First Lady has flourished an identifying issue (Lady Bird Johnson, highway beautification; Nancy Reagan, “Just Say No” to drugs; Michelle Obama, physical activity and healthy eating).” I must confess that what I enjoyed most about this list is his decision to omit from it a certain First Lady who (unsuccessfully) tried to fix healthcare – a defining policy issue of our time and one-sixth of the U.S. economy – and then eventually ran for President herself. Small detail.
Melania slights are easy to find. In April, Salon published a piece that lamented that “Donald Trump’s White House can’t even organize the Easter Egg Roll.” Another defining policy issue of our time. And of course, it was Melania letting America down all over again (“Much of the discrepancy in this year’s slow planning seems to fall on the absence of the First Lady in Washington.”). Hell, she is so bad at this First Lady thing that she could not even get herself to drop that nasty Slovenian accent when reading to impressionable young children. And it gets worse. The NYT ruled that she also failed at “fashion diplomacy” on her first overseas trip. Her job, we are told, involved “humanizing the president by being the approachable, accessible half of the equation” and “participating cheerfully in the spousal exercises of dressing, dining and hospital visiting.” But apparently, she rejected her role, in part, by wearing clothes that were “ready-for-battle” rather than designed “to charm.” No one really knows what “battle” she was getting ready to fight – least of all the writer of this piece – but whatever it was, she was apparently rejecting First Lady sartorial tradition by embracing “rigidity of line, monochrome palette and militaristic mien” and “sharp power shoulders, single-breasted jackets with wide cinched belts and big square buckles, straight skirts and a lot of buttons.” Phew. A stunning array of high crimes.
So there you have it. Being First Lady is a lot of work and Melania was just not doing it right. So what do First Ladies do, you dare ask? Well, it’s pretty complex. Even before she gets to her “office,” a real First Lady must show that she can bake an all-American cookie (and like most real American cookies, it must have at least three times more sugar than it actually needs). Yes, there is a cookie bake-off for First Lady hopefuls before Election Day. Interestingly, this sweet tradition originated as punishment for Hillary Clinton when she uttered the infamous words on the campaign trail for Bill’s first presidential run in 1992: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.” If you have not watched her say the fateful words with which she forever alienated a large section of the American public, you can watch it here (it is subtly titled “Hillary Clinton Insults Stay-at-Home Mothers in 1992”):
What else? Ideally, a prospective First Lady must already have changed her last name to her husband’s before he runs for the highest office in the country (and if, like the delightful Theresa Heinz Reluctantly-Kerry, she dared to hold on to a different name of her own choosing for a few extra years, she has to be prepared to be interrogated endlessly about it by a flabbergasted media). She must be a “steadying hand” and a generous homemaker (because “her touch is always needed” at home, dumbass). She must pick a worthy cause – but please, not too worthy – as long as it is closely aligned with traditional female roles such as beautifying objects and providing nutritional advice to children. She must speak softly and carry around a big pull-out therapist’s couch, just in case someone needs a little emotional nurturing. She must be the hostess with the mostest, be able to pick out the flowers and china and throw a good party. It is only 2017 after all. And just where do you think you live? Iceland? Sweden?
I have lived in this country for 16 years, and I continue to be fascinated by its fascination with its First Lady. It’s like this country never really quite accepted that it would not have a real princess or queen and collectively dumped all of its disappointment and expectations into the reluctant lap of the First Lady. But America’s Queen must strictly be of the consort variety. God save her if she ever tried to rule or anything like that (or for instance, have any serious opinions on how to fix healthcare).
No conversation about Melania’s performance as First Lady is complete without a short discussion of her formidable predecessor, Michelle Obama. So let’s talk about Michelle Obama. The story about Michelle Obama that’s always stayed with me was the one recounted by her husband in his 1995 book Dreams from My Father. In it, he writes about Michelle’s growing resentment towards him as he spent more and more time away from home, leaving her alone to raise their daughters and manage her eventful and busy career. Late in his presidency, he would once again write about Michelle facing the disproportionate and unfair burden of raising a family while managing her busy career. By the time Michelle Obama arrived in Washington – this charismatic, accomplished, smart, self-assured, strong, warm, candid and funny powerhouse of a woman – she had not only become accustomed to playing second fiddle to her husband’s ambitions, but in order to suit his most recent political needs, she had also been remade to fit an image that made white America comfortable. When Michelle announced that her favored title was “mom-in-chief” and that she would primarily focus on soft causes such as getting children to eat their vegetables and exercise more, some people cheered. But I winced. As did many other female friends that I spoke to and many prominent feminist voices.
If I truly, truly believed that Michelle Obama had had the ability to choose – from a long list of options that would be available to a spouse or significant other of any head of state, male or female – I would cheer too. Empowerment is largely about choice, after all. But there are too many red flags to succumb to this belief – the historic and regressive expectations of the First Lady in the U.S.; Barack Obama’s extremely cautious, political and image-obsessed team of advisors (who could not possibly have ignored what Republicans and the media did to Bill and Hillary Clinton all those years ago when Hillary tried to step out of the traditional First Lady role); the criticisms that Michelle Obama received on the campaign trail for being too loud and too outspoken (thinly-veiled codewords for being “too black”); the disdain and condescension with which this country treats high-profile women in politics; the eagerness with which the media and large segments of the American public reduce powerful women to solely their roles as mothers and fashion icons; and above all, Michelle Obama’s own professional and personal life story up until that historic moment – a working woman who was devoted to her kids, no doubt, but also someone with a varied and wildly successful career and identity of her own.
There are those that may ask: but what else would you have a First Lady do? To them, I say: How about a real job? You know, the kind that involves a real salary in return for your hard work? Its not impossible. Cherie Blair, wife of Tony Blair while he was Prime Minister of UK and proud feminist, maintained a career and raised three children while they lived at Downing Street (despite criticism from the media). And here at home, Jill Biden, the so-called “Second Lady” of the U.S. (admittedly a lower-profile position than Michelle’s), was the first one to hold a paying job as a teacher while her husband was Vice-President. And what do you think a First Spouse would do if he was male? In the U.S., we have no precedent for this. In fact, we don’t even know what such a person would be called if he ever happened to exist. But in the UK, Phillip May, Theresa May’s husband, continues to have a career. As does Joachim Sauer, Angela Merkel’s publicity-shy spouse. I don’t know about you but somehow I can’t pictures these two blokes parading around in fancy clothes that are “designed to charm.” And what if the First Couple was gay (gasp!) and not chained to narrow heteronormative gender roles? Luxembourg’s openly gay Prime Minister Xavier Bettel has a spouse who works. As did Jónína Leósdóttir, partner and then wife of Iceland’s first openly lesbian Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.
Ultimately, the issue is not really about whether the First Lady must have a paid job. No one should be forced to have a paid job if they don’t want to and don’t have to. But something tells me that if Michelle Obama was freed from the shackles of conformist expectations during her tenure as First Lady (and not subjected to the constant racism that dogged both her and her husband for eight years), she may have taken on a more powerful public role. Just imagine that for a second: Michelle Obama speaking out consistently, substantively and forcefully on issues such as gun violence, racial justice or economic opportunities for women and girls. And given her famous reputation for multi-tasking and efficiency, she would probably have done all that on top of her healthy eating and fitness campaigns.
But I digress. We were talking about Melania. So let’s get back to her. During the protests that greeted Donald Trump’s election and inauguration as President, a patronizing placard went viral. “Free Melania,” it implored.
I winced again (as did many others). Because what did “free Melania” really mean? That Melania, a grown woman, was somehow incapable of making her own decisions about her marriage and the man she married. If Melania wants to free herself of the man she married with all eyes open, she will do so in her own time. Thus far, she has defended his worst behavior so let her figure out what she gets out of this deal and make her peace with it.
But tell you what? Let’s each do our bit to free Melania: from having to pretend-bake sugary cookies that she probably does not bake or eat; from having to live in a gossipy little town that she seems to detest and far away from the life in Manhattan that grew on her (there is a separate and valid question of whether taxpayers need to fund that alternative life); from having to gratefully accept a full-time, unpaid, regressive and very public role that she does not seem to want; from the constant scrutiny over what she wears and why she wears what she does; and from having to nurture, coddle, console and comfort anyone purely because she is a woman and a wife.