The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jill Biden isn’t alone. Independent first ladies inevitably face criticism.

The sharpest blows have been dealt to first ladies who challenge their supposedly subordinate roles.

Dr. Jill Biden with her husband, President-elect Joe Biden. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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Nearly two weeks after an inane op-ed arguing that Jill Biden, who earned a doctorate in education, is not qualified to identify as a doctor, the future first lady’s professional status is somehow still under discussion. Tiresome as it is to learn that people are upset that a woman who holds an advanced degree doesn’t hide her accomplishments, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Indeed, whenever presidential spouses break barriers, they tend to face intense criticism.

The sharpest blows have been dealt to first ladies who challenge the norms of their prescribed subordinate roles. One of those norms is that first ladies leave their professional lives behind once their husbands are elected, which Jill Biden, impressively, has no plans to do. It might seem strange that her decision to keep her job as a community college professor while serving as first lady is such a novelty in 2020. After all, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama each had graduate degrees and careers before entering the White House.

The hullabaloo about calling Jill Biden ‘doctor,’ explained

But the impossible contradiction inherent in the role of the first lady has made the path of least resistance — and, as my research demonstrates, most beneficial to the White House — one in which first ladies emphasize their status as benevolent volunteers, political outsiders and relatable mothers and wives, while promoting projects that cast the president’s policy agenda in a favorable light.

In short, the public wants active, accessible and transparent first ladies — they just don’t want them to have their own activities and agendas.

No first lady did more to normalize the image of an active working presidential spouse in the minds of Americans than Eleanor Roosevelt, who publicly and privately shaped many New Deal-era anti-poverty and civil rights programs. But in fighting to maintain the professional independence she enjoyed before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election, Eleanor Roosevelt faced confrontations with journalists and even her husband, who requested that she stop teaching at the Todhunter School and resign her positions at the Democratic National Committee and the League of Women Voters once he was elected. It was even controversial that she drove her own car before and during her husband’s administration.

Hillary Clinton’s use of her maiden name, Rodham, and her infamous assertions of independence — whether she was invoking Tammy Wynette or cookie-baking housewives — were scrutinized throughout her husband’s political career. Clinton faced a similarly intense backlash when she was appointed to chair the president’s Health Care Task Force, despite her experience spearheading related efforts at the state level when she was first lady of Arkansas. Many attributed the administration’s failed push for health-care reform to Clinton’s leadership role, which fueled litigation over whether the task force qualified as an advisory group made up of full-time government employees.

Of course, not all first ladies have energetically pursued their own interests during their husbands’ administrations. Many have opted to focus on the social and ceremonial functions of their office, providing input and advice behind the scenes, or have appeared to shun politics altogether. They are criticized nonetheless.

Bess Truman and Melania Trump were reproached by the press and the public for their lack of public activity, drawing harsh comparisons to their trailblazing predecessors. Truman did not hold news conferences or give interviews, and Trump dramatically cut back the number of media appearances we have come to expect from first ladies seeking to buttress their husbands’ policy agendas and help them out of political messes.

If Trump had a first lady like Hillary Clinton, he'd be in better shape

But as my research shows, reacting to criticism by withdrawing from the spotlight has consequences for presidential administrations, their policy objectives and the many lives first ladies can improve by directing attention and resources to the issues they care about. Denying the White House opportunities to capitalize on the first lady’s popularity is difficult. Maintaining professional autonomy might be even harder.

Like her predecessors, Jill Biden is learning a tough lesson about our nation’s discomfort with — and confusion about — an accomplished woman in the White House. It is natural to react, as she already has, with surprise to such judgments. She might even reasonably wonder what she can do to avoid friction and keep the focus on her husband. But she can also take heart: History has eventually rewarded bold first ladies, embarrassed their detractors and recognized the work each presidential spouse has done to shape the contours of a thankless and peculiar job.

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