From Eleanor to Michelle: First Ladies, Service Projects, and Gender

Eleanor Roosevelt was a remarkable woman and a particularly notable First Lady. She changed the role of President’s partner from passive host responsible for making guests of the White House feel at home to active member of society, participating in a number of important causes and creating service projects to stay engaged with people in the United States. Instead of fading into the background, she stood out proudly, and wasn’t afraid to advocate for what she believed in. There’s a reason people are fond of slapping Eleanor Roosevelt quotes on motivational posters—though the misuse of such quotes is often nothing short of an abuse of her legacy.

She created a service tradition for First Ladies, one that in turn created a generalised expectation that they would be involved in social projects during their tenure in the White House. The nature of these projects, though, is what fascinates me, because so many fall out along gendered lines; literacy, for example. This is not to say that literacy is not important, but that it hearkens back to gendered ideas about what is ‘nice’ for women to be doing. Women can be teachers, and thus a First Lady promoting literacy is clearly being a good representative and partner for her husband. Likewise the First Lady who refurbishes the White House, or promotes children’s health.

There is a clear gendering of tasks and policy priorities that happens, and it’s unavoidable even if it’s disagreeable. Things regarded as traditionally ‘feminine’ are undervalued even if they are critically important to policy; health care, for example, is really important to the wellbeing of the United States, but public health awareness is often gendered female. Likewise with things like literacy or promoting pay equality; these are ‘woman things,’ rather than ‘people things,’ and thus they fall under the rubric of activities a First Lady can safely engaging in without upsetting people. They don’t threaten the perception of the First Lady’s gendered role in US society.

Not so much the First Lady who is more aggressively and directly involved in foreign policy or significant domestic policy issues like health care reform. Hillary Clinton was often criticised during her time in the White House for the nature of the projects she undertook, and for her refusal to be quiet and ladylike. In her own way, she had a lot in common with Eleanor Roosevelt, including the ability to disregard what would be ‘appropriate’ for ladies in the interest of getting things done. Her bold, driven personality has been an important part of her political legacy, but it’s also one that has earned her a lot of enemies, particularly when she was First Lady and refused to sit docilely in the corner.

A few months ago, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books posted a question on Twitter, asking people to respond with what kinds of service projects they would embark on as First Gentleman. We have yet to elect a woman or gay man to the office of the Presidency, and thus we haven’t had a First Gentleman, but it raises some interesting questions for me. Would the First Gentleman have more leeway in terms of allowable projects, because he’s a man? Or would there be worries that he might overshadow his partner if he engaged in policy advocacy, unless he stuck to nice, ‘safe’ topics like healthcare for children and making the White House grounds look pretty?

What would a First Gentleman look like, exactly? These are questions people are starting to ask in the hopes that they will be answered soon; and of course some of us are also wondering what a First Genderqueer might look like, or a First Neutrois. For that matter, what about an unmarried President? This has occurred in the past, and various relatives or friends have taken over the role of White House host on behalf of the President, though this occurred in the era before the First Lady role also included taking on a service project for the duration of the Presidency.

It intrigues me that there’s an assumption that the First Lady would, of course, be involved in public service and must take a public role during her partner’s time in office; there are heavy expectations on the whole Presidential family, regardless as to the wishes of individual members. Running for office in this era comes with an added side of finding out whether family members are really ready for it, and that presumably includes a talk about the most acceptable public service project; the constant performance required of women in politics is also required for women who are married to politicians, whether they are First Ladies or the wives of city council members. Hostesses, political networkers, service workers, and so much more. Yet, the same expectations are not placed on men married to women in politics. Instead, there seems to be an assumption that they might have careers or priorities of their own they’d like to focus on while their wives ‘dabble’ in political activities, or they’re allowed to enjoy some expectation of privacy.

It’s yet another example of the double standard facing women in politics: If you are a woman married to a politician, you need to lead a public life, but you must be very, very careful about the life you lead, because you cannot afford to step on any toes. Whatever social causes you may want to support, you must pick one that will meet the standards of the people around you in order to keep your husband’s term in office looking respectable…or you’re letting the team down.