The High Price of Being the First Lady

After I finished reading the New York Times bestselling book, The Obamas, by Times reporter Jodi Kantor, I came to this not-so-pretty conclusion: It sucks to be the first lady.

 

Wait . . . let me add a caveat or two: If you are a woman who a) has ambition b) is educated c) has a profession that you like d) want to actively be engaged in public policy issues (and have the experience/expertise to do so) e) want to be free from non-stop harassment about everything from your clothing and parenting, to your vacations and relationship with your spouse, then living in the Oval Office as the first spouse would be a crappy job for you.

 

No way would I want to be standing in Michelle Obama’s shoes, even if they happen to be pricey, designer pumps and she has a household staff that cooks, cleans and carts her kids around. (I could sure use a staff, but I’m not willing to pay that she’s paid the price she’s had to pay for it.)

 

As I read The Obamas, I kept shaking my head and wondering why anyone would actually want to be a first lady, a thankless, largely ceremonial post that requires women to walk around like big targets who get criticized for everything and anything they do. The first spouse is given precious little power, even though she’s expected to use her political influence and wifely charm to get her husband elected, appear at fundraisers for her husband’s political party and support other party candidates whether she likes the person or not. It’s an unpaid job where she gets little say in her daily life - there are all these so-called “mandatory” lunches and events to which the first lady is involuntarily signed up to attend - and if she dares to object to anything, be anything other than a lackey who is expected to jump when the presidential aides say, “Jump,” she’s called a diva, a pain in the neck, an elitist, spoiled . . . the list of insults is long indeed.

 

We, apparently, still want our first ladies to be seen and not heard, unless the first spouses are talking about White House events, floral arrangements, classical music, tea parties and universally loved charities. We want them to look feminine and appear to be non-threatening, like a bouquet of old fashioned, hearty American daisies in a glass vase (transparent so we can see through it). We don’t want to know or even think about a first lady -- regardless of how educated, professional or experienced she is - advising her husband, for whose campaign she toiled, on what to do in the highest office in the land.

 

"The role was just extremely difficult,” Kantor wrote. “To be first lady meant enduring scrutiny and confinement; watching your husband make excruciating decisions and then be attacked for them; and advising in secret, rarely acknowledging your real influence. Openly influential first ladies like Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton were deemed meddlers, unelected figures who held unearned power . . . [The] hardworking, canny wives . . . were exiled to the East Wing and recast solely as helpmates.” (It’s worth pointing out that White House aides, who are apt to hound the first ladies, weren’t elected either.)