5

I understand that this position is not unique to the USA, but I'm asking specifically about the role's specific existence in the country.

Why is it that we as a country continue to place such a high level of emphasis on the First Lady? It seems that there is an expectation that she will take on pet projects during her husband's presidency. In addition, she is elevated to a position of respect/authority beyond what she would have held without her husband's title.

This seems like an archaic system with overtones of sexism and implicit nepotism. Why is it that we (as a country) cannot allow these women to follow their own passions and judge them on their own merits? Has there been any sort of discussion about limiting the power/funding/ability to leverage their connection to the President given to them at a federal level? (i.e. bills introduced to Congress, discussions in subcommittees, etc.?)

  • 1
    First lady/gentleman/spouse is not an official title in the US. The "pet projects" tendency is fairly new. – Bryan Krause Aug 16 at 18:14
  • 3
    @BryanKrause The Office of the First Lady is part of the Executive Office of the President. It is a federally funded office with federal staff. Whether or not the actual title is enshrined in law, I suggest that the position as a concept is clearly established. – Brian R Aug 16 at 18:16
  • Nothing official about that particular office either. The EOP is a real thing, funded by the government, but the makeup of the White House Office is up to the executive. It could simply disappear at the whim of the president. – Bryan Krause Aug 16 at 18:19
  • 6
    That's fair, but your question refers to it as a "position of power"; there is no granted power in the office or the title from the government, if the president's spouse has power it's from sources external to government, like coverage by the media. As far as their leverage over the president, I think it would be far more sexist (at least since the president has so far only been a man with a woman or no spouse) to legislate that a first spouse not be allowed to influence the president. That's a thing that most spouses do for any position, not just the presidency. – Bryan Krause Aug 16 at 18:28
  • 3
    I know, but those are not powers granted by the government. Non-spouse private folks can do those things too, if they have an audience. The reason it's effective is because the media will report on their initiatives. I'd argue that they are judged on their own merits and largely have followed their personal passions. – Bryan Krause Aug 16 at 18:57
5

Although showing a little age, Watson (Presidential Studies Quarterly, 1997) attempts to summarize changes in the expectations and role of the First Lady over time.

The Modern First Lady

According to Watson, the modern role of the First Lady begins in 1974 with Barbara Ford (though Lady Bird Johnson is something of a prequel). These are First Ladies who are active public officials:

The modern first lady has emerged as an active and public partner of the president. ... Modern first ladies are expected to have an interest in politics and the presidency. They are expected to campaign and to advocate or champion social causes and adopt their own pet project. It is becoming the rule and not the exception that the first lady has surpassed the vice president and even the most senior advisors and cabinet secretaries in terms of visibility ...

What exactly do they do?

  • They adopt pet public policy projects. These are typically "safe" subjects, but are nonetheless important policy areas that the First Lady champions.
  • They work in substantive public policy issues. This may include meeting with foreign officials, chairing task forces or other public bodies, etc.
  • They have ceremonial and social functions. Although many of these could be construed as domestic activities, these invariably have a political function and character in the White House.
  • They marshal public support. When the public approves or disapproves of the First Lady, this is reflected in support for the President also.

Why the change?

There appears to be only a small literature on the Office of the First Lady. However, an article by Eksterowicz and Paynter (Social Science Journal, 2019) claim that this is all part of a trend of professionalism in the role of the First Lady. Past First Ladies were not treated as professionals: they were merely the wife of the President. They took care of the White House and managed domestic affairs. The modern First Lady is instead a competent public policy professional with their own policy domain, staff, and budget.

Movement Toward Change

I didn't see any evidence of change. I searched for "First Lady" on congress.gov to look for bills. None appeared to be substantively related to the Office of the First Lady. I also searched for audits from the GAO. The search returned a few results. The most substantive ones relate to the cost of executive travel. In neither case was there a recommendation for significant changes in the office.

  • 2
    Curious, I've seen Eleanor Roosevelt attributed as the first "modern" first lady; she predates Ford by decades. She seems to match the definition spot on: politically active and pet projects, to the point where she was basically used as tool for testing public perceptions by her POTUS-husband without risking his own political life, and her political activities and advocacy efforts lasted well beyond his death. Does Watson say anything about Eleanor and why she's discounted? – zibadawa timmy Aug 17 at 6:32
  • @zibadawatimmy - I'll add this to the answer today. E.R. is only "modern" in a fairly vague sense. She was actively involved in politics (a first for her time). The "modern period" in Watson's research is defined by a high degree of professionalism. Things like maintaining a sizeable staff, dealing with policy operations, etc. That's a significant difference from E.R. – indigochild Aug 19 at 16:00
3

There is no such position in the US Constitution (big C). Nevertheless it is well established in the constitution (little c). That the spouse of the Head of State has a major (if not clearly defined) role is not unique to the USA. In many countries the Head of State is a King, and his wife is Queen. In the UK the husband of the Queen is the Duke of Edinburgh and has used his position on various pet projects.

It is sexist insofar as the American democratic political system is sexist in, so far, no woman to be President. The First Lady is not a "position of power", but it is naturally one of influence. You can't stop the President from being influenced by their close family. It is, moreover, unsurprising that the wife of the president should want to use such influence as she has for "pet projects".

There has, to the best of my knowledge, been no attempt to restrict the influence of the First Lady on the President. And I can't think of a way to legislate to restrict how people give respect. Part of the nature of a democracy is that you can't force people to have the "right" opinion (as you see it).

2

The Office of the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) is the official host of the White House and is traditionally the President's Wife, but several presidents have had non-spousal First Ladies including the President's Mother Sister, or Daughter (in these cases it was not incestuous marriage either, just so we're very clear on that) in cases of widower Presidents or Grover Cleveland, who never married.

Typically, the First Lady's official duties are to greet guests and arrange any social functions or gatherings at the White House (her office will be in charge of making the arrangments for a State dinner for example or this year's Easter Egg Roll) as well as the decorations during holidays and the living space of the First Family. Though I'm not sure, the office may also run errands for the First Family that the First Lady couldn't do (It's rather hard to have an in and out pick up of milk at the grocery store when you have a Secret Service Detail).

While it's more notable today, the First Lady has always been an important figure in political society in Washington D.C. since the days of the City's namesake, and the First Lady is typically seen a sort of style and fashion icon by the nation, and will frequently be asked for thoughts on many topics in the realm of the nations culture so the office also coordinates the press around her and frees up the West Wing press office to focus on issues relating to the running of the country. Typically the First Lady's budget isn't discussed as something to be cut unless budget allocated for the White House writ large is being discussed... even then, it's the President's office that gets the closer look as they tend to be larger and more numerous areas to cut. In addition, in American Politics, there is a taboo about targeting the character of a politician's family (adult family members are fair game if they first make the commentary. Attacking the President's still minor Chidren is considered uncalled for. Attacking a President's Dog is treated with a level of scorn reserved for people who deserve the death penalty. No less than three Presidential pooches became famous and beloved after someone crossed that line (FDR's Dog Fala, Nixon's Dog Checkers, and George H.W. Bush's service dog who famously stood guard over his master's casket during the course of a viewing)). So the matter of funding the office of FLOTUS is typically not seriously discussed as it tends to fall too close to the taboo for even the most ardent budget cutter to survive making it the sole cut.

Edit: Though it never happened, the appropriate title for the male spouse of a President is "First Gentleman" and has been used for the husband of Female Governors of States in the United States as well as the English title for a Female President's husband in other nations with a President (unless that nation uses some other title for the role). There were jokes about what someone would call the male spouse in 2016, as Bill Clinton would potentially have the role, with a joke about addressing him as First Lady Bill Clinton that were more commentary on the character of Bill than serious proposals to keep the title for both genders. As I said earlier, FLOTUS is given to the female occupant of the office, regardless of her status as the President's Wife.

  • Unfortunately, FGOTUS doesn't roll off the tongue quite as easily as FLOTUS or POTUS. – Nuclear Wang Aug 16 at 19:16
  • James Buchanan, James Buchanan was the only President who never married. Harriet Lane acted as First Lady of the United States during the presidency of her uncle, lifelong bachelor James Buchanan, from 1857 to 1861. Lane is among eleven women who have served as First Lady but were not married to the President, with most of the other women being relatives of widowed presidents. – Rick Smith Aug 16 at 19:18
  • @NuclearWang Seeing as how FLOTUS is a designated code word for the office used by the Secret Service, it might be that FLOTUS will refer to the spouse of the President, even when the position is held by a Man. It's still a better term than SLOTUS... the VPOTUS' spouse. (Second Lady of the United States). – hszmv Aug 20 at 12:53

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .