FirstLadyology: The Role Has Long Been a Lose-Lose Proposition

FirstLadyology: The Role Has Long Been a Lose-Lose Proposition

FirstLadyology: The Role Has Long Been a Lose-Lose Proposition

In breaking the mold for presidential partners, Jill Biden could set her successors free.


When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, she and her husband, Marty, moved to Washington, D.C., where Marty was often asked at cocktail parties about his commute. People assumed that he still worked in New York, because who had ever heard of a man giving up a job in service to his wife’s career? In fact, Marty—a successful tax attorney in his own right—not only got a new job but actively lobbied for his wife’s promotion to the Supreme Court. He also took care of the home front, not because Ruth was negligent, but because no one liked her cooking. Her talents lay elsewhere, and Marty was disinclined to eat bad food. Far from feeling diminished, he radiated pride in their partnership, writing to her on his death bed, “I have admired and loved you almost since the day we first met at Cornell some 56 years ago. What a treat it has been to watch you progress to the very top of the legal world.”

Marty was a man ahead of his time, what the kids are now calling a “wife guy”: a man who promotes his high-achieving spouse, secure in himself and unthreatened by her ambition.

If, as Caitlin Moran says, your husband is your glass ceiling, then Marty Ginsburg was the Sistine Chapel.

Which brings us to the president, and the backlash to Dr. Jill Biden, the first first lady to hold a job, teaching at the community college where she’s worked since her time as second lady. Not only does her education surpass her husband’s but she also correctly uses the honorific to which it entitles her. Naturally, the little men at Fox News and The Wall Street Journal have tried to knock her down a peg, dismissing her thesis title—“Student Retention at the Community College: Meeting Students’ Needs”—as “unpromising,” and attempting to unmask her as some kind of fraud because she’s not an MD. Never mind right-wing media mainstay Dr. Seb Gorka, PhD.

The fact is, the first couple of the United States is always a Rorschach test for contemporary gender norms, and whereas Melania Trump was a fully signed-up trophy wife, swatting away her husband’s hand but otherwise willing to play along for the eventual payout, the Bidens evince a deep love and genuine excitement for each other. At the DNC, watching Joe gush over how he got to hand Jill her doctorate was a revelation. But it’s what he said next that really sticks out for its exceptionalism in defining a woman’s professional identity as central to her being: “Teaching is not what Jill does. It’s who she is.”

It’s the same story with the second couple, where Doug Emhoff—the first second gentleman—deliriously cheerleads from the sidelines for Kamala, who was already 49 years old and the attorney general of California when he first asked her out. Clearly, the man likes powerful women. Emhoff is leaving his law practice in Los Angeles to move to D.C., just like Marty did for Ruth, where he’ll join the faculty at Georgetown University Law Center.

Unlike Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama before her, though—the only other first ladies with graduate degrees, who had to retrofit themselves into little women, pretending they weren’t accomplished professionals—Dr. Biden’s work outside the White House represents an official identity beyond her marriage.

It’s totally radical, and also kind of ridiculous.

That’s because the role of the American first lady is unique among our global peers in that it exists at all. When the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, tried to enshrine a similar role for his wife, Brigitte, the public rebelled against the notion of an expanded, unelected, taxpayer-supported office as antidemocratic. Instead. Madame Macron was encouraged and even expected to take a job outside her husband’s administration. Angela Merkel’s husband, a research scientist, is similarly removed from official duties; Boris Johnson’s fiancée works in public relations for a nonprofit devoted to protecting sea life. No other G7 nation demands that the spouse of its leader parade around as a national symbol of woman or manhood; they’re more likely to insist s/he get a life of their own.

Requiring anyone to perform as first lady is a lose/lose proposition, and we should get over it.

Every politically active first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt (the sole, iconic exception) has been caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of the public’s gendered expectations for professional women and the demand that they be moms or wives first. Lady Bird Johnson—a savvy investor who turned her inheritance into a multimillion-dollar media empire (against her husband’s advice)—resented having her environmentalism dumbed down into the appropriately feminine “highway beautification.” Rosalynn Carter openly lobbied lawmakers for the Equal Rights Amendment, until public backlash forced her to back down. Think about how Michelle had to talk incessantly about being a “mom in chief” as opposed to her work as an executive of a major hospital system, and the primary breadwinner for her family. Or the way Hillary had to strap on an Alice band like a little girl to temper the blowback to her comments about staying home and making cookies.

For average working women, this translates into the second-wave “superwoman” who can “have it all”—as long as she’s willing to work a second shift at home and get paid less at work. So, too, the first lady who threatens to leave the domain of her private influence, and wield hard power in the public, male arena of politics.

But Jill Biden is about to become the only first lady this nation has ever known who is her whole self. Maybe now we can stop pretending women are supposed to be anything else.

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