As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s look at one of the most absurd American traditions: The first lady.
A first lady, the “hostess of the White House.” The mere fact that a hostess is the way first ladies are still categorized as is inherently sexist, insinuating first ladies serve at the beck and call of their all-powerful husband.
In no way are these women running for office, and yet, when Americans go to the polls, they might as well check the name of the corresponding first lady. It is assumed without question that these women will drop everything to become state-sponsored caretakers.
Every first lady adopts a platform, where, in tandem to their husband, they use their role to champion certain policy initiatives. Aside from this, however, most of their expected duties are shallow, largely revolving around White House upkeep and entertainment. Among the many superficial roles include picking the theme of the White House Christmas tree and selecting the pattern of the White House china set.
This role is confining and discriminatory, reinforcing the passé expectation of women as “guardians of the house.”
Further pushing the gender divide, the president is generously paid $400,000 for serving the country, while the first lady receives a whopping zero dollars. Arguably the greatest representation of a wage gap, the lack in pay not only portrays, but asserts, that the first lady is but a servant to the country.
All the while the media loves to further belittle these women by hyper-fixating on the appearance of the first lady. The media relentlessly criticizes first ladies on surface-level criteria from their outfit choice to their facial expressions. Considering male spouses and politicians never endure similar scrutiny, this disproportionate obsession only reinforces gender roles. Rather than focusing on these women’s accomplishments or life stories, the media continues to “other” them, seemingly implying an incompatibility of femininity in the White House.
Prior to delving into my own research, what I knew about first ladies fit the media set stereotype. My knowledge on Michelle Obama, for instance, was limited to her child obesity platform and muscular physique. In reality, these ladies are highly acclaimed, serving as much more than a pretty face. Michelle Obama worked at a firm where she specialized in intellectual property and marketing law, Jackie Kennedy was a photojournalist for the Washington Times-Herald and Laura Bush was a school teacher and librarian.
Every first lady is no different than any other hard working American, yet as they step into the doors of the White House, their accomplishments are overshadowed with conventionalist wife expectations. Thanks to the media and the ingrained precedent for a first lady, our knowledge of these women, regarding what they did outside of their husband’s term, or who they are at all, is hindered because the role of the First Lady is a digression in gender equity.
Many see a female president soon on the horizon, but I question how this same country that continues to maintain the importance of a first lady could possibly vote a female into the most powerful governmental seat. More so, when the long overdue day arrives when a female is inaugurated into office, it seems unlikely that our society would expect the first gentleman to pick up all these stereotypically feminine tasks. It may even force madam president into doing them on top of her obligations to the country.
Sustaining the expectations for a first lady insinuates that women can only have comparable political power because of their husband. This symbolic position is keeping women’s political career in chains.
The first lady is outdated.
With 2020 being one of the most unparalleled years politically, socially and economically to date, the year of 2021 has brought vast hopes for improvement. As we emerge into not only the 46th presidency, but the 44th celebration of International Women's Day — recognized each year on March 8 — it seems like the tides are finally set to change.
Dr. Jill Biden is unprecedentedly keeping a paid job during her husband’s presidential term. As her husband is in D.C., Dr. Biden will be continuing her career as an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College.
The decision to overturn 231 years worth of this socially set expectation insinuates that Dr. Biden is a modern first lady. Rather than putting her life on hold for this symbolic prize, Dr. Biden has decided to live like most other twenty first century women — pursuing a career and maintaining a life outside of the realm of her husband.
Kamala Harris represents yet another stepping stone, being the first female vice president. In truth, the key to gender equity is women. Empowering women means giving women the opportunity to hold positions of power, prove their worth and show society they can do a “man’s” work.
In law, the rights granted to men and women are indistinguishable, but in social aspects of life, gender divides continue to loom. By putting to rest outdated roles like that of the first lady we may finally overcome gender stereotypes, viewing every American citizen as what our government has promised: Equal.
International Women’s Day is not merely about celebrating women’s achievements, but giving attention to the realms in need of greater gender parity. As we commemorate women everywhere today, take a minute to really ponder the role of women in our society.
Em-J Krigsman is a freshman studying Political Science and Journalism. Do you think the role of the First Lady should be retired, or is this a symbolic position here to stay? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.