When the founders of the U.S. created the office of President they didn’t waste any time on the role of the First Lady. That’s not surprising. The founders were all men and in the 1780’s, married women were expected to keep quiet, have lots of babies and not interfere in politics.
Martha Washington was the original First Lady and she followed the social standards of her day. She hosted salons, genteel affairs where the upper crust of society could hobnob with the President and members of the Cabinet. But she stayed firmly in the background and had no political opinions.
The women who succeeded Martha Washington are mostly cyphers forgotten by history. The one exception in the 19th century is Mary Todd Lincoln. She is remembered because she had a dreadful life in the White House.
Her husband was despised by half the country, including many northerners and Mary lacked the political smarts to be an asset to him. Her political follies could fill a book. For example, she decided to redecorate the White House and was shocked when journalists attacked her for wasting money on new curtains and china while the country was at war.
She also endured personal tragedy. Most of her family sided with the Confederacy which led the newspapers to brand her a traitor living in the White House. She lost her son Willie to a lingering illness. The crowning sorrow was the assassination of her husband.
For decades after that, First Ladies kept a low profile until social standards changed the role of women. The epitome of the modern First Lady is Eleanor Roosevelt. She entered the White House with her own political agenda. She wrote a daily newspaper column arguing for labor rights, an end to racial segregation, and much more. She was so busy she developed her own office and a staff.
Since then, each First Lady is given an official staff and expected to support her own causes. Recently, she even became an acronym: First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS). However, First Ladies must still avoid being too overtly political. Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton were criticized for interfering in politics. As a result, First Ladies tend to support “women’s issues” such as children’s health and education. Michelle Obama supported healthier lifestyles to reduce childhood obesity.
It will be months before the in-coming First Lady defines her role as FLOTUS. She certainly has a wide range of role models to choose from. But her choices may be more limited than other recent First Ladies because the last time an incoming president was this unpopular was 1861. The only certainty is that the newest FLOTUS will mirror some aspect of current social standards for women.
About Norma Shirk
Norma started her company, Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor, to help employers create human resources policies for their employees and employee benefit programs that are appropriate to the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy. Visit Norma’s website: www.complianceriskadvisor.com/.
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