Karen Pence, the second lady of the United States, and I disagree on plenty and vehemently. On principle, I would never work for an organization that made me take a pledge to avoid “moral misconduct,” including “heterosexual activity outside of marriage … homosexual or lesbian sexual activity, polygamy, transgender identity, any other violation of the unique roles of male and female,” as the Immanuel Christian School, where Pence has returned to an art teaching job, does. I feel awful for students at Immanuel Christian who might grow into their identities as LGBT people, and who might face expulsion and harassment as a result. And Pence’s choice to teach there reaffirms my deep opposition to the Pences’ worldview and their efforts to make their values a reality.
But there is one point on which Pence and I are in total agreement: It’s a wonderful thing that she’s going back to work, even if it’s for an organization that enforces values that I find abhorrent.
It’s a ludicrous relic of a former age that the first and second ladies, whatever professions they might have practiced before their husbands became president, are expected to give up their jobs and their salaries for unpaid positions as expert helpmeets. (Update: As some readers have written in to note, Dr. Jill Biden worked throughout her husband’s vice presidency.)
Obviously there are some couples who choose to structure their marriages this way. And there are some families who might choose to have one partner devote more time to parenting or care for elderly parents when the other takes the highest-pressure job on offer. But there’s a difference between a mutual decision to focus on one partner’s career and an informal but forceful taboo on a woman (or man) continuing to work once their spouse is sworn in to office.
Insisting that political spouses give up their jobs denies women (and someday men) the right to choose professional fulfillment and financial independence. It also means that families deeply committed to that idea have to give up the opportunity to model it at the highest levels once one of them becomes president.
On a more gender-specific level, forcing a president’s wife to act as America’s hostess and comforter, potentially against her inclinations, reinforces the sense that hospitality and caregiving are women’s work. Demanding that the first lady do this job also, at times, denies America the person most qualified for the job. Rather than the absurd spectacle of Ivanka Trump as President Trump’s policy adviser, and the sometimes bizarre, trollish hash Melania Trump has made of the job, might this era in American politics have been slightly less of a shambles with the younger Ms. Trump in the first lady’s office?
While it’s true that having a spouse who works outside of the White House or the Eisenhower Executive Office Building could present a genuine conflict of interest or, God forbid, a potential political or messaging conflict, I’d argue that there are benefits to that sort of discomfort.
At a moment when American politics and culture seem to be defined by grift and self-dealing, it would be valuable to see politicians at the highest level navigate potential ethical conundrums with integrity and transparency. If the first or second lady’s job is one that expresses the values her husband is pursuing in office, working outside the administration allows her to make substantive contributions without being accused of being a puppet or a Lady Macbeth. And if she and her husband happen to disagree, so much the better: in an era of hyper-partisanship, it’s worthwhile for Americans to see that people can have strong disagreements, and even work at cross purposes, and still love each other.
Pence’s decision to go back to teaching at Immanuel Christian doesn’t tell us anything about her beliefs, or her husband’s, that we didn’t know already. But in a small way, her choice paves the way for first and second spouses of the future to take bolder steps toward preserving their professional independence. Pence might not like to think of it this way, but that’s a feminist contribution worth celebrating.