Following the death of Barbara Bush, Chris Bond looks at the role of the First Lady, how it has changed over the years and whether we will ever see a man in the role.
IF you were being cynical you could say the result of the US Presidential election in 2016 showed that America wasn’t ready for the idea of having its first female leader.
But if the idea of a woman being Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful nation on earth was too unpalatable a proposition for many voters, the notion of the First Lady is one that’s long been embraced.
The role has come into focus following the death, at the age of 92, of Barbara Bush who was both the wife of one former president and mother to another.
Dr Christine Harlen, Lecturer in US Politics and International Political Economy at the University of Leeds, says Barbara Bush adapted to it well.
“She played an important part in highlighting the issue of literacy, that was her big cause as First Lady. She also said the Republican Party shouldn’t be so critical on social issues which was rather unusual at the time.”
Barbara Bush follows a long line of women that have left their mark on the role.
Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady for 12 years during which time she transformed the position, making it an integral part of the American political system. Then there was Jackie Kennedy who became a glamorous 60s style icon before tragedy struck and turned her into a symbol of mourning for a bereft nation.
As Dr Harlen explains, the role of First Lady is a complex one. “People tend to stick to issues that aren’t very controversial like literacy and healthy living, which was the case with Michelle Obama. You can see Melania Trump is trying to fit into that now by helping children and focusing on the issue of cyber bullying.”
One of the difficulties for any First Lady, though, is how they define what is a constricting role. “You have people like Michelle Obama who was a very well respected city administrator having to restrict herself to things like encouraging people to eat vegetables.
“She found it very constraining to the point where Barack Obama made jokes about Michelle escaping from the White House. So it’s difficult for women because it comes with their husband’s job, it’s a hard role to pull off.”
Even today it remains a ceremonial position to all intents and purposes. “People look up to First Ladies and they’re often more popular than the president, especially if they stay out of politics. One of the reasons for that in the US is that the president is in this odd position of being both a politician and also representing the country, so the First Lady’s role is largely a symbolic one.”
However, even the most respected figures have at times found themselves embroiled in controversy, often over something seemingly inconsequential.
“Nancy Reagan was criticised for spending too much money decorating the White House, Melania Trump was criticised for her White House Christmas decorations which weren’t seen as traditional, and Michelle Obama was criticised for telling people to drink enough water when they exercised.”
Dr Harlen says it requires a certain type of personality and temperament to be First Lady. “It helps to be outgoing and warm and to be able to relate to ordinary people. Laura Bush did a very good job because she came across as being friendly. But it’s not easy because you have to curb your own ambition.”
Dr Harlen sees fewer similarities between the First Lady and the husband or wife of the Prime Minister. Instead she sees closer ties with another British institution.
“It’s less like being the Prime Minister’s husband or wife, it’s much more like being a member of the Royal family,” she says.
Perhaps the most pertinent question, though, is when will see the first man take on the role, and not only that, what will they call him?