Hillary Clinton Might Finally Shatter the Role of First Lady & That's a Fantastic Thing

Hillary Clinton

Sure, becoming the first woman president would be a major deal by any standard, but the role Secretary Hillary Clinton is positioned to do away with forever is the old-school gig of First Lady. Here's why that would be an incredible thing for all women.



First, let's just all agree we've had some incredibly badass First Ladies -- from Martha Washington to Dolly Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie O, and even our current queen of style and grace, Michelle Obama.

But their immense contribution to our country had nothing to do with how good they were at baking cookies or setting the table. They were, and are, each in their own rights, accomplished, cool women who probably could have done even more had they not been constrained by the old-school definition of "First Lady." By tradition, the First Lady is expected to set an example to American women of the ultimate hostess and charity lunch guest and not much else.

And now with the prospect of a man, a former president at that, assuming the role of "First Lady," this is a perfect opportunity to finally scrap the idea that the "woman of the White House" should be some traditional party–throwing, china-picking, pearl-wearing June Cleaver -- and let the extraordinary spouses of our most powerful executive instead find a role that lets each one of them use their own particular talents to determine how to best serve our country.

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Gabriela Herstik over at Broadly points out that historically, if a president was elected without a wife, he would appoint some lady relative to do the job. She speculates whether Chelsea Clinton would then get the nod if Hillary is elected and Bill finds himself completely unable to approve flower arrangements. 

But Chelsea has a family and a life and probably has way better stuff to do than help host White House parties. Besides, the White House has staffed up significantly in modern times and doesn't quite rely on free wife labor to host state dinners anymore.

The assumption that the White House requires full-time attention from a "First Lady" also assumes that a woman president, let's just call her President Clinton, would stop being a woman with her own fixed opinions on china and flowers and menus and furniture. Just because a woman becomes president in no way means she stops being a woman. She becomes a far busier woman, no doubt, but not some robot.

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This whole idea of a woman behind the desk and the husband overseeing the social calendar is new for everyone, but it sure points out how ridiculous our expectations are that a First Lady becomes this hyper-domesticated "America's Mom" cartoon the moment her husband is elected to office.

Especially because the opposite is likely true. Our First Ladies are tough-as-nails broads who've been around the world and seen it all. Michelle Obama is a respected attorney, who was President Obama's mentor. Hillary Clinton was equally accomplished. Barbara Bush is one of the most respected Americans in history who obviously still scares the pee out of her very powerful sons. All of our First Ladies have served their country through all kinds of circumstances, despite the fact that part of that job was to assume this "Martha-Stewart-in-Chief" persona. Some of them probably really enjoyed that part of the job. But it's fun to imagine the kind of role models all these ladies throughout history could have been to American women had they been permitted to show us exactly who they were, rather than what we were willing to accept from them as the president's wife.

So maybe this can be one of the most feminist aspects of Bill and Hillary Clinton's legacy -- completely redefining what America expects a First Lady to be.

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Hillary gave it a solid effort during her time as First Lady. She tried to pass health care reform legislation and contribute to the business of the country, and she was despised for it. The American public just wasn't ready to expand their idea that a First Lady could be more than the dutiful, mute spouse to the president with a token cause or two to support.

But in 2016, just the visual of seeing a man standing next to the commander in chief will be jarring enough for the American public to let Bill do Bill, which will undoubtedly mean making big, substantial contributions to Hillary's decision making and giving the occasional wonky, far too long speech on public policy. Besides, why would we waste everything the president's spouse could offer the country beyond color schemes? And completely shattering those ideas would be a huge service to every other "First Lady" that will follow him.

Imagine how wonderful that could be for every American woman. Imagine if every First Lady to follow Bill has the choice of whether to keep working, or champion a big, meaningful piece of legislation or pick china or raise babies. And from the moment Hillary Clinton takes office along with her First Lady Bill, every woman who follows him in that job will have a choice of what to do with it. Which also just happens to be precisely the choice every American woman needs to make for herself in order to fully contribute her talents to the world.

And that, friends, is what feminism looks like. And I can't imagine a First Lady doing anything more important with that old-school gig than that.


Image via US Embassy/Flickr

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