Misc 21/01/2021

Hillary, Michelle, Melania, and Jill, the changing role of the First Lady

Presidents' wives have chosen the way they exercise their role in the White House

Gabriel Colomé
3 min
Jull Biden felicita carinyosament al nou President del Estats Units

BarcelonaThe twentieth amendment to the United States Constitution also affects the First Lady: at 12 noon on 20 January she ceases to be a First Lady and returns, like Cinderella, to being a citizen. Each First Lady has chosen how she will serve in the White House. To be invisible, or visible. Active, or inactive. To be in the media, or not.

The pre-established function from Abigail Adams, first tenant of the White House, is basically domestic. Fixing up the house to her liking. A smaller White House than the current one. We must remember that the West Wing did not exist until Theodore Roosevelt's presidency and that the president and his team moved there.

Jackie Kennedy was the first to change the uses of the White House. The glamour of the First Lady opened the door of the East Wing to music. To Pau Casals, for example. Or to the La Gioconda exhibition in Washington DC with the permission of André Malraux, French Minister of Culture. Or to begin the decoration and restoration of the house.

To give more examples, Hillary Clinton was more of a political First Lady. A note: Hillary installed her office on top of the presidential Oval Office, led the legislative battle on the health care bill, to the point of turning the Clintons into a presidential couple. Michelle Obama, on the other hand, used the media power of being First Lady to promote government programs such as Let's move, which sought to encourage healthy eating and exercise in young people. Or the global campaign Let the girls learn, to promote female education.

However, Melania Trump had become a secretive, rather invisible, silent First Lady. She had no opinion. The image she conveyed was that of a sphinx. She was the First Lady with the lowest popularity rating since Hillary Clinton, according to a survey that CNN-Gallup launched with Pat Nixon. She had 47% unfavourable opinions to 42% favourable opinions, despite having undertaken the Be Best programme to teach children to be better and having tried at the beginning of the mandate to open up to the functions of her presidential role. But in the end, she gave up.

The First Lady's role is flexible in her practice, but Melania had become, for media and public opinion purposes, the president's companion. The reason is simple: she adopted the role of a First Lady from the days before the women's liberation movement. She returned to the past, to the republican values of the family. Her cold and distant way of acting during these four years made analysts focus on the details. For example, whether the presidential couple shook hands, whether Trump showed affection or whether they lived in the White House. Gossip, after all.

In his favor, let's think about Donald Trump's personality. And his presidency. He'd hardly let anyone overshadow him. Melania's discretion contrasts with the personality of the business president who floods the day-to-day with his image and his tweets. Was it imaginable that Melania would have a voice of her own like other First Ladies? It is imaginable, but difficult.

Protocols and traditions

This end of the presidency breaks with protocols and traditions. Trump has not acknowledged his defeat and has not conceded victory to Biden and, moreover, has not attended the transfer of power. Melania has also broken with a tradition begun by Bess Truman when she invited Mamie Eisenhower to visit the White House to symbolically take over as First Lady. Melania will not show Jill Biden her new home. Jill, an English teacher who didn't quit her classes when Biden was vice president, looks like she will opt for a rather different role.

Every sphinx can send a final message to reveal who she really is. In her farewell speech, Melania said that "violence is never the solution", a stylish way to distancing herself from President Trump and the January 6 assault on the Capitol.