Imagine this: your husband is offered his dream job. And I’m talking dream job, not just a better job, or more money, but a real, honest-to-goodness, this-is-all-I’ve-ever-wanted Dream Job. Of course, you’re going to have to move to a new city, but the company will provide you with a beautiful house to live in. Your children will have to change schools, but no worries, the company will make sure that they’re admitted to the private school of your choosing. Your husband is going to have to work pretty much all the time, but he’ll get to work from home, which is a bonus. The company will also provide your family with a personal chef, a driver, and a bunch of people to help take care of your errands and every day needs. And, oh, there’s just one more thing. You have to quit your job, and you can’t get another one. In fact, your husband is going to be so important to the company that you’re going to have a lot of clients coming to visit, and were kind of going to need you to entertain them. And their wives. And sorry, but you know, we hired him, not you, so, we can’t really pay you anything for doing it. Although, if you’re passionate about something and you want to do some non-profit work on the side, that’s totally cool. In fact, we encourage it. It really helps with our image. We’ll even let you use one of our private jets.
If any of this sounds familiar, it should, because the company is America, the dream job is President of the United States, and the wife in question is the First Lady. It sounds pretty antiquated, don’t you think? Very pre-suffragist, pre-Title IX, pre-NOW. I thought so, at first. I was all set to go on a tirade against the indentured servitude, the downright slavery that is First Ladydom. But as I’ve sat here for the last several hours, contemplating this post, my opinion has completely changed. I don’t think the role of First Lady is old-fashioned at all. If anything, I think it’s totally, utterly modern. So modern, in fact, it’s almost post-modern.
Technically, the First Lady has no official duties. She’s not required by law to host state dinners, or to pick out china patterns. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the First Lady must charm foreign dignitaries, or visit sick children in hospitals. But she can’t really work outside the White House, either. It’s not an explicit ban, but the potential for conflicts of interest is just too great, and I think we can all agree that no employer of any kind should have that much influence with the President, whether real or perceived. So while it’s not fair that a First Lady can’t work in the private sector, it does make sense, and it’s not a double standard, either. Just look at what Bill Clinton had to go through in order for Hillary to be named Secretary of State. And he’s doing charity work.
As for the unpaid nature of the role – again, it’s unfair, but there is a logic to it. First Ladies are not elected, nor are they appointed and then confirmed by the Senate. They’re not accountable to anyone for their actions, and they can’t be fired, or impeached. It’s not like anyone could tell the First Lady that she’s not allowed to be married to the President anymore. The fact is, First Ladies are like arms or legs – they come with the Head, whether we like them or not. And as such, they shouldn’t be given a salary that is, after all, funded by tax-payers. There’s no question that First Ladies do valuable work, but let’s face it: you wouldn’t pay someone if you couldn’t also fire them and choose someone else for the job, would you?
And what about the job itself? It is a job, there’s no question about that. It’s not like the First Lady sits around the White House eating bon-bons all day, if you know what I mean. Like the Constitution, what’s so interesting about the role of the First Lady is that it is a totally flexible organism. By not enumerating official duties for the President’s wife, America’s founders left her role open to interpretation. And as we’ve seen in the most recent two presidencies, that role can contract or expand, depending on the interests and ambitions of the woman who fills it. Which is, when you think about, really quite modern.
I mean, isn’t that what all of us want? The choice to work hard when we can, or to stay home when we’re needed there? Isn’t that the holy grail of working motherhood? To go in and out of the work force at will, when it makes sense for us and for our families? Michelle Obama has said that for now, she want to restrict her role to “mom in chief.” But she might feel differently in two years, or in four, or in six, if Obama wins a second term. She might decide, when her children are older, that she wants to roll up her sleeves and dig in her heels and use her Harvard law degree to do something more than host parties and pick out dishes. And what’s so great about the job of First Lady, is that she can. Go back and read the first part of this post again – the part about the husband and the wife – and this time, ask yourself this: which one of them really has the dream job?