It’s a measure of just how hilariously awful Donald Trump’s choices to fill his administration have been so far that when the idea began to circulate last week that his daughter Ivanka Trump might end up serving as his de facto first lady, I actually thought, hey, I don’t hate this. It’s not so much that I’m willing to hand-wave the ethical problems with the Trump children’s involvement in their father’s government or that I’ve learned to excuse what the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum described as Ivanka’s “weaponized graciousness,” the beaming dishonesty she uses to moderate her father’s ugly, erratic behavior. It’s that of all the ways Trump wants to disrupt government, the first lady’s position is one that could actually use a good shaking-up.
It remains completely bizarre that there is a position in the federal government that a person is required to take simply because their spouse is elected to a complementary job, regardless of that person’s interests, inclination or passion for the career they actually chose. It’s even weirder that this job, which demands long hours and an extraordinary public performance as the nation’s surrogate mother or cool friend, is both mandatory and unpaid. In a way, the continuing existence of the first lady’s job is a high-profile barometer for how roles for women have or haven’t evolved in the United States. The backlash to women who have tried to change the position too much demarcates very clear limits on how little it’s possible to innovate within that confined space.
There’s precedent for a person other than the president’s wife to serve as first lady; Emily Donelson took on hostessing duties for the widowed Andrew Jackson, while Harriet Lane served as first lady for James Buchanan, who never married. Though these women stepped up for their uncles to fill a space left by a death or bachelorhood, Melania Trump isn’t dead. But it certainly seems that her stepdaughter, a more comfortable public speaker with a demonstrated interest in decorating and style and a stated — if not demonstrated — concern for issues such as family leave and child care, might be a more natural fit for the job.
Making an official White House hosting position a job that ought to be filled by the person best-suited for the work, rather than the person who happens to be married to the president, would accomplish a couple of important things.
First, this shift would acknowledge that the White House’s social functions are a critically important part of the work of a presidential administration, helping to set the tone for the president’s interactions with hugely accomplished people as well as ordinary Americans. At present, the unpaid nature of the first lady’s job, and the fact that marriage — not qualifications — is what gets someone the job sends a message that the first lady’s functions aren’t really work. Managing the upkeep of an important national landmark, acting as an ambassador for bipartisan causes and welcoming all sorts of Americans aren’t the same as mining coal, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable national functions — so valuable that we insist someone be around to do them. Allowing the president to select someone who is interested in design and historic preservation, and who enjoys doing outreach to the American people, and then paying that person would send the message that this is real work.
Second, having an official White House host or hostess who is chosen not on the basis of marriage but on the basis of talent, and with the idea that the job has distinct parameters, would also be an opportunity to clarify what the job is not. The very 1993 court decision that the Trump administration has contemplated using to suggest that nepotism laws should not exclude Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, from working in the administration lays out the many ambiguities involved in the first lady’s position: How does one draw a line between the president’s policymaking and ceremonial roles? If the first lady is a government official, can she be removed from office for ethics or legal violations without the president divorcing her? Is the first lady’s position a full-time job or a part-time job?
Nothing in Trump’s record so far suggests that he would manage these questions with deftness or intellectual curiosity. But if he wants to charge ahead and involve Ivanka Trump in his administration, this desire might force more sophisticated legal and ethical minds to tackle a role that generally has been defined by tradition and custom. The first lady’s job is a ridiculous anachronism. Perhaps this ridiculous administration in the making will accidentally do something about it.