This piece is part of an On Leadership round table exploring the role of first lady.
As founder of the White House Project, I have repeatedly been asked why the role of the first lady is so problematic.
My answer? Because the cultural ideal of women in the United States has not kept pace with the reality of women’s lives; it’s still about being a wife and mother. Cultural ideals die hard, and the role we preserve for first ladies serves as the most powerful and visible enforcer of that ideal.
We’ve had renegades, of course. Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton are two famous examples, but there was also Ellen Wilson who, like Michelle Obama, was an ally for her husband Woodrow and his work. Ellen also saw civic responsibilities as a part of her role. When she saw that the women in the post office had no bathroom facilities and couldn’t get attention from a presidential adviser, she is said to have asked him loud questions about it at a White House dinner. It worked.
Then there was Lou Hoover who had been a national public figure before Herbert was president, and who launched a series of public radio addresses. She bucked segregation in the White House and invited African American women in as guests.
But as women assume ever more visible and powerful leadership roles as Supreme Court justices and members of the president’s cabinet, as well as CEOs of large U.S. companies, the cultural ideal of wife and mother has been further threatened. Even when first ladies are good wives and mothers, they are still reined in when they try to go beyond.
When we have our first woman president and, thus, our first gentleman (it even sounds bad), believe me, we will figure out how to change this role pronto. Until then, there are other real ways we can get off the dime.
Sociologists will tell you that every position we call a “career” is built for a front and back office. That back office did, and for many families still unfairly does, relegate the majority of the hearth and home duties to women.
But for couples with equal educations, positions and sufficient help, it has become more of a true partnership—with women becoming coaches, consultants and often owners. That’s why discarded corporate spouses have been awarded large financial settlements: Their roles proved to be essential in building the husband’s company.
It’s time to publicly acknowledge these true partnerships
in our Oval Office. We know that Bill Clinton listened to Hillary, that Ronald Reagan leaned on Nancy, and that President Obama trusts and respects his wife and her judgment.
When in Jodi Kantor’s recent book The Obamas , Michelle Obama asked the staff to “use me” she meant to really use her — all of her. Her brains, her ability and her sense of purpose. That’s what each of us wants in these true partnerships. The boys in the back room would be wise to start now, it’s not too late.
It would help women everywhere to overthrow the ideal and replace it with the reality. Let’s start with the first lady.
Marie Wilson is the founder and president emeritus of The White House Project.
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