I was listening to some older folks while at lunch hour and they were discussing How nice it was to have a first lady with some class for a change. Trivial searches will find lots of crazy theories about Michelle Obama, and for her time as First Lady (of the US or Arkansas) Hillary Clinton had a pile of conspiracies around her. Melania Trump in turn has lots of negative (though not necessarily mainstream) press attention surrounding some of her actions and motivations. Donald Trump also took potshots at Heidi Cruz, the wife of his main competitor in the Republican primary.

That said, I don't really remember Laura Bush being assaulted in this manner, and all I can find (now) about Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush is relatively positive. Is this tendency to target the First Lady or even wives in politics a particularly new development?

  • 4
    Not sure if it's ever been deemed universally 'acceptable'. Political attacks have always been common, of course.
    – user1530
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 19:02
  • "First lady" is something unique to US, which the public subliminally allow the leader spouse interfere with country affairs. So what is the fuss about your "second leader" criticised by Joe public?
    – mootmoot
    Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 14:19

2 Answers 2


Each "First Lady" defines her own role. The woman who did most to change it from being a White House hostess to an active political role was Eleanor Roosevelt.

Roosevelt's resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution (on a matter of segregation) caused much criticism at the time. An FDR website quotes a journalist “I have been accused of rudeness to Mrs Roosevelt when I only said she was impudent, presumptuous and conspiratorial, and that her withdrawal from public life at this time would be a fine public service.”

There was also much criticism of her earning money. She made as much as $1,400 a lecture, leading to accusations of profiteering, and tax avoidance.

Some first ladies have been less politically active, some more so, according to their own interests and abilities. However, politically active First Ladies is not a particularly new development.

  • In saying that Eleanor Roosevelt was the first First Lady to take an active political role, you overlook Edith Wilson, at least.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 22:11
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    Obviously, taking an active political role will not please all voters, hence (some of) the controversy around Hillary Clinton. Michelle Obama took more of a traditional role, being primarily focused on (apparently) apolitical causes like healthy eating and physical fitness. (Similarly, Laura Bush campaigned for children's literacy.) It's fair to say that many people dislike Michelle Obama out of association with her husband's politics and/or simple racism, not for anything she has done. Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 7:51
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    This has happen right from the beginning, from Dolly Madison falsely credited with saving the Washington Painting to Mary Todd Lincoln spending way too much on furnishings. Criticism is to be expected for anyone in the spotlight. Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 12:44

It is normal for Presidential Chiefs of Staff to receive so much criticism that they resign their positions part-way through a Presidential term.

It is not normal for Presidents to get divorced while in office.

With the exception of Edith Wilson, it used to not be normal for First Ladies to be heavily involved in the running of the White House, nor in determining whom (or what) the President could see as part of doing the President's job.

In the past generation, three First Ladies took on such roles. All three were criticized for it:

  • Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer about which days were most propitious for her husband to deal with various topics.
  • Bill and Hillary Clinton campaigned in 1992 as a "two-for-one" deal. Hillary had considerable authority in the White House, including organizing efforts to nationalize some forms of medical insurance.
  • Michelle Obama was consistently one of the three most important presidential advisors during her husband's administration.

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