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The First Lady Has a Huge Job. She Should Be Paid for Her Work.

The First Lady Has a Huge Job. She Should Be Paid for Her Work. 1

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A few months into the 2020 presidential race, Politico posed a question: “Is America Ready for a Single President?” In the piece, writer Joanna Weiss looks at how the fact that Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is unwed could affect his bid for the Oval Office. Of course, TMZ and CNN have both since reported that Booker and the actress Rosario Dawson are now in a relationship, which perhaps renders his status somewhat more palatable to our #bachelornation nation.

The piece addressed a theme of American politics—our deep obsession with the spouse of the president. But it could have gone further; how is that in 2019 there’s still such a critical role in the White House that awards zero compensation to the person who does it?

The job of President of the United States is herculean, but well understood. His wife, on the other hand? Like most women, her set of responsibilities is amorphous. In decades past, these women (and so far they’ve all been women) have pushed for and shaped the national conversation about education, nutrition, service, health care, and more. They’ve acted as the public face for the administration, particularly in times of crisis. They’ve coordinated state dinners, ceremonies, and celebrations. And they’ve traveled the world both to speak for their husbands and to stand next to them; the perfect photo opp.

JOYCE NALTCHAYAN

The sheer breadth of responsibilities has been baked into the position almost from the start. From Abigail Adams on, first ladies have weighed in on public debates, political appointments, and even whether the nation should go to war. In the modern era, women like Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy evolved the role further. Roosevelt delivered regular addresses on the radio and held almost 350 press conferences (nearly all of which were only open to female reporters). Kennedy took on a full-scale historical restoration of the White House during her tenure, which helped shape our current sense of the domestic duties a first spouse is supposed to fulfill. Later, Hillary Clinton famously lobbied for health care reform. Laura Bush was a staunch advocate for childhood literacy. Michelle Obama attempted to address childhood obesity one push-up at a time. But for all the rigor with which these women approached the position, the job’s responsibilities have also been said to include maintaining a “slavish devotion” to the president and providing nonstop “thankless labor.” It’s a massive, ever-expanding, mostly underappreciated role. And technically, first ladies are expected to do it for free.

Each time a man has won the White House, his wife has been expected to relinquish her life in deference to her husband’s political aspirations. And that means her job too. Worse still, she’s supposed to be grateful for it. As Bill Clinton ran for president in the early 1990s, Hillary Clinton defended her career ambition when she quipped to reporters, “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.” The public scorned her for the infamous quote, and soon enough, she was baking cookies for Family Circle magazine’s first ever First Lady Cookie Bake-Off. Michelle Obama, too, was criticized for her ambition before, in the midst of, and even after her husband’s time in the Oval Office.

Ed Clark

Of course, there have been single presidents before (although few) and widower presidents. Some have married women who weren’t available for every single task assigned to them. But now, the demands of the office are full-time, unendingly public, and open to endless scrutiny, as Melania Trump knows very well. Meanwhile, spouses of heads of governments in other countries have often maintained their careers, in part because the roles that the American first spouse has to tackle are in some cases left to royal families, as Keli Goff pointed out for the Daily Beast in 2015. Who’s British Prime Minister Theresa May’s husband? Yeah, I don’t know either.

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