A former first lady vying to run the country? A sitting first lady commanding the stage on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention? A vice-presidential pick’s wife who serves as a Virginia Cabinet secretary?
In some ways, this is nothing new. The American electorate has been getting a twofer for decades from its political spouses. Heck, Edith Wilson ran the country for nearly a year and a half after President Woodrow Wilson had a stroke in 1919.
She didn’t have the right to vote, but Wilson became known as “the secret president” or the “first woman to run the government” after she seamlessly took over her husband’s executive duties until the end of his term in 1921.
The difference today is that first ladies are better educated and far more upfront about wielding influence than ever before. And it still freaks some people out.
“If you suggested in 1982 that a first lady would be running for president now?” said American history professor Lewis L. Gould. “I wouldn’t believe it.”
“That wasn’t in my crystal ball,” said Gould, who is now retired, but once made waves teaching a class on first ladies in 1982 at the University of Texas at Austin. Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee “is beyond my wildest, historic dreams.”
Even at the gubernatorial level, political spouses are powerhouses. Take Anne Holton, wife of the Democratic vice-presidential pick, Sen. Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia.
Holton, the daughter of a Republican governor, is a lawyer and judge. When Kaine served as governor of Virginia, she spent her time helping children in foster care find stable homes. She became Virginia’s secretary of education after her husband left the governor’s office.
First ladies have been doing this kind of heavy lifting — as well as the more traditional luncheons and teas everyone expects — from the country’s start. But they often did so under the radar.
Is Dolley Madison remembered for doing the fundraising to send Lewis and Clark on their exploration of the West? Or founding an orphanage for girls? Nope, it’s easier to remember her as the gracious hostess who saved the portrait of George Washington during the White House fire of 1814.
In 1892, Caroline Harrison refused to support Johns Hopkins Hospital until officials admitted women into their medical school. They eventually did.
Twenty years later, Helen Taft was a transformative activist on behalf of federal workers, helping to secure safe and clean working conditions through quiet meetings, behind-the-scenes negotiations, factory visits and a seat in the audience at congressional hearings.
But of course, she’s better known for bringing the cherry blossoms to Washington.
It was seen as innovative and novel that Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at the 1940 Democratic National Convention.
“Now, it’s just old hat” to have a first lady give a speech, Gould said. “Now the conversation is about someone plagiarizing a first lady.”
Lady Bird Johnson — who bankrolled her husband’s first political campaign, then ran his congressional office while he served in the Navy — was the one who truly created a fully staffed first lady’s office in the East Wing. She championed the Highway Beautification Act and Head Start and did a solo whistle-stop tour to promote the Civil Rights Act.
She set the standard for first ladies taking on public campaigns.
And that, Gould said, was a reflection of society.
“I think of first ladies as a lagging indicator,” he said. “Social change would happen, then they would catch up.” They continued their driver’s-seat activism — Betty Ford on addiction, Nancy Reagan on Just Saying No — and “it was like a car picking up speed.”
When Clinton boldly and defiantly took on a formal public role leading a task force on health-care reform, it created a backlash against her. And subsequent first ladies — Laura Bush and Michelle Obama — retreated to more traditional roles.
It’s still a high-profile — though unpaid and sometimes unappreciated — job. A couple of years ago, when President Obama was talking about equal pay, he said that “Michelle would point out first ladies get paid nothing. So there’s clearly not equal pay in the White House when it comes to her and me.”
Bush once said the job has so many perks (“A chef!”) that a salary for first ladies is not necessary.
But her next observation was an astute and prescient one: “I think the interesting question is not should they receive a salary, but should they be able to work for a salary at their job that they might have already had,” she said. “I think that’s what we’ll have to come to terms with.”
And now, that same question could apply to a first gentleman. So we’re making progress.
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