If Hillary Clinton is elected president, she won’t be the only Clinton making gender history: Her husband, Bill, will take his place as the first “first gentleman.”
But why shouldn’t he pick the china? If one goal of a Hillary Clinton presidency is to challenge traditional gender roles, then her husband should flout them, too. The best way he could do that is by taking on the domestic issues facing women and children that are too often derided as “softer” than economic or foreign policy topics — and, yes, doing the stereotypically feminine work of party planning and decorating, too. A first man managing the White House household would be just as groundbreaking as a female president.
The role of the first lady has always been high-profile. Her top duty has traditionally been to serve as a hostess, tending to the homebound aspects of White House life — planning state dinners, decorating, gardening and, more recently, tackling fairly uncontroversial issues such as literacy and children’s health. A few have been rebels: Eleanor Roosevelt testified before Congress in support of migrant workers and wrote a newspaper column on issues she cared about; Rosalynn Carter led efforts to improve the mental health system and often sat in on Cabinet meetings; Nancy Reagan was one of her husband’s closest advisers; Sarah Polk served as her husband James’s unpaid assistant. But by and large, first ladies have stayed out of male-dominated policy spaces, at least in the public eye.
Until first lady Hillary Clinton.
Presidents’ wives “have had significant roles in varying ways, but Hillary was really different,” taking on health-care reform as a major policy initiative, said Karen Blumenthal, a journalist and the author of “Hillary Rodham Clinton: A Woman Living History.” “Once it failed, she didn’t just go back to picking the silver and the menus. She becomes something of a foreign emissary, she goes to countries that Bill doesn’t go to but where it’s valuable for there to be an American presence.”
Clinton became a vocal advocate for women’s rights overseas, against the advice of her husband’s aides. She worked with Republican and Democratic senators to pass the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and pushed her husband’s administration to fund and implement it. She kept her own office in the West Wing — a first for first ladies — and her own staff that helped on policy initiatives.
And she faced enormous backlash. During Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, she was routinely compared to Lady Macbeth and denounced as a “rogue feminist.” Attacked for her thriving legal career, she defended herself by saying that she “could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession” — and was swiftly pilloried. (She published her oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookie recipe in Family Circle magazine in part to defuse the controversy.)
Once Bill was in office, opposition to Hillary’s role in health-care reform, which was quickly branded “Hillarycare,” stemmed partly from the perception that she was straying from a first lady’s proper role. By the time her husband was embroiled in a sex scandal, Hillary had scaled back her domestic policy objectives, advocating for Bill as the House impeached him and the Senate voted to keep him in office. She also campaigned, often behind the scenes, for the rights of women and children. Her approval ratings soared.
Presidential spouses appear to have noticed the scorn heaped on Hillary for her nontraditional work. The last two first ladies took on important causes — literacy for Laura Bush, childhood obesity for Michelle Obama — but neither of them went overseas the way Clinton did or spearheaded major policy initiatives (although some of Obama’s child health work has been surprisingly controversial among Republicans who want vegetable-eating liberals to keep their hands off kids’ tater tots).
“Both of them have been much more traditional,” Blumenthal said. “My sense is that they saw the way Hillary paid for that and chose not to take that approach.”
Modern first ladies have staffs that take care of most of the hosting details — decorations, flowers, food — and even the media seems more interested these days in what the East Wing is doing policy-wise. But while Obama and Bush did more issue-based advocacy than most of their predecessors, they nevertheless remained involved in decorating for Christmas, overseeing party planning and managing renovations. After Hillary, they both walked a fine line, focusing on issues they cared about without being perceived as overstepping their bounds, and often undercutting their own successes and ambitions by emphasizing their roles as mothers and helpmeets to their husbands.
“Through their publicity, and as role models for American women, first ladies helped to legitimate women’s participation in the public and political spheres long reserved for men,” wrote Lisa Burns, now a professor of media studies at Quinnipiac University, in a dissertation that would become the basis of her book on first ladies. “. . . These women were granted the latitude to perform in the political sphere, provided that they confined their interests to issues affecting women and children. When first ladies were suspected of violating these boundaries, press criticism that framed them as political interlopers helped to contain them.”
It was clear in the 1990s that many Americans were uncomfortable with a break from tradition in what is our most public of traditional female roles. People now also seem uncomfortable with the idea of Bill Clinton, once the most powerful man in the world, doing what’s always been seen as women’s work. Articles questioning the place of Hillary’s husband in a second Clinton White House abound, taking for granted that the usual duties are beneath him: It would be an insult to have a man of such experience and intellect using his expertise to promote a lightweight issue such as children’s health, or doing something as frivolous as deciding between gold-rimmed plates and silver-detailed ones.
This surely isn’t because we discourage frivolity or interest in aesthetics and entertaining in men — if that were true, the world would lack golf courses and sports cars. It isn’t because keeping the very young alive and thriving is inherently less valuable, or figuring out how to get there less complicated, than debating the merits of this tax policy or that infrastructure project.
It’s because we associate things like selecting flowers and caring for children with women — and so we’re okay with first ladies advocating on women’s and children’s issues, but not much else. Culturally, we have a deeply ingrained, often subconscious contempt for women and for the things women do. That’s why when something is marked “feminine,” it becomes humiliating or emasculating for a man to do it. It’s why we smirk at the idea of Bill Clinton taking over Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden.
Men today do spend more time with their children, and do more around the house, than ever before. But they haven’t taken on at-home work at the same volume and velocity as women have taken on work outside the home. Hillary Clinton is challenging long-held assumptions about women, authority and power by running for president. Having a female leader for the first time in our 200-year history would be a huge symbolic change.
We need stereotypes of maleness to change, too. Having a former president lead on subjects branded as less important or on matters that our culture has usually left to women would make clear that issues don’t become “soft” as soon as they’re not primarily about men.
Despite her clear preference for substantive policy work, Clinton also handled all the traditional first lady duties: hosting parties, overseeing White House renovations, hiring a chef, championing American historical treasures. If he really wants to challenge gender divides, Bill Clinton should take on these traditionally female obligations. He would send a powerful message: There’s no such thing as “women’s work” and “men’s work,” “women’s issues” and “hard issues.” And the aesthetic, domestic and social labor women have long done in the White House — indeed, the labor they have long done in many houses, with smaller budgets and fewer flower arrangements — is valuable, too.
Both power and marriage look very different today than they did 50 years ago. Going forward, our presidents’ marriages will look more like the Clintons’ and the Obamas’ than the Reagans’: two highly educated, ambitious people in a partnership of mutual support. Clearly, we need a new model for first spouses.
So maybe Bill could perform the traditional duties of a first spouse and also have his own policy portfolio that included children’s welfare and the economy. Removing himself from feminized work in the White House would only reinforce gender divisions and stereotypes about women’s roles, and could leave future first ladies in the same circumscribed, culturally fraught position they’re in now.
If they make it to the White House, both Clintons have an opportunity to break political molds as old as America itself. Hillary’s attempts to challenge stereotypes have sometimes been imperfect, as when she wielded cookie recipes to salve American unease with powerful, ambitious women. But largely, she’s dedicated herself to improving women’s lives, and she is a living icon of what smart, determined, feminist women can achieve.
She’s done her part. It’s time for Bill to do his.