What Happens When The First Lady Isn’t A Lady?

Acting as first lady is a tough, public job that has always been considered women's work. If Bill Clinton becomes the United States' first man to take the position, he has a chance to change that — or not.

When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump walked onstage to begin their second presidential debate on Oct. 9, the two candidates notably broke tradition by declining to shake hands. But their respective spouses, Bill and Melania, still offered each other a brisk, businesslike shake en route to their seats. By the third debate, on Oct. 19, relations between the Trump and Clinton camps had soured even further, and Bill and Melania not only didn’t shake hands, but pointedly stayed well clear of each other.

Like seconds in a duel, Bill and Melania were and are obliged to present a unified front with their spouses — one of whom, of course, will become the next president of the United States. And those moments at the debate gave us a glimpse at a reality that seems increasingly likely: that Bill Clinton may be the first man in our nation’s history to fill the office of first lady.

Bill Clinton, of course, has already lived in the White House, and he wouldn’t be first lady, because he is a man. More than that, he is an American political institution in his own right, with decades of experience — not to mention alleged sexual misconduct and an impeachment trial — under his belt. He’ll be stepping into a role that has, for better or for worse, been one of clear boundaries and limitations for decades. And that raises a lot of questions.

Hillary Clinton in many ways benefits from being the first woman to do what she’s doing, and Bill Clinton might benefit from being the first man to do what he’s about to do. It also means, though, that old and pernicious ideas about gender and marriage and political power follow the Clintons into their next chapter, because new ideas haven’t been invented yet. If Hillary Clinton wins and brings Bill with her, what duties will she assign him, as opposed to shifting them to, say, their daughter Chelsea? What duties will he assign himself?

Will the former governor and president and current head of a multibillion-dollar global foundation be content to take on a supporting role in his wife’s administration, or will his own complicated relationship to power and celebrity result in a refashioning of the job itself? If the job does change for Bill (and not the other way around), will it stick, opening up new opportunities for first spouses regardless of gender, or will the privilege to change the role of first lady be revoked once the first “first man” leaves office?

Nearly a year ago, at the December 2015 Democratic primary debate, moderator Martha Raddatz posed a question to Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, senator of New York, and first lady: “You have said that Bill Clinton is a great host and loves giving tours but may opt out of picking flower arrangements if you’re elected. Bill Clinton aside, is it time to change the role of a president’s spouse?”

Clinton smiled broadly and responded, “With respect to my own husband, I am probably still going to pick the flowers and the china for state dinners and stuff like that.”

The internet immediately erupted. Why, in 2016, should the woman who now seems likely to be the first female president of the United States still be fielding questions about floral arrangements? It seemed a particularly loaded question for Clinton, who during her husband’s time as president was frequently taken to task in the media for stepping outside the traditional parameters of her role, and baked cookies only begrudgingly.

And yet: To reduce the role of the first lady to dining, decorating, and hospitality, or to assume that those tasks can’t be as politically fraught as late-night calls on the red phone, is to both misread what we expect from first families and also to downplay the very real labor women have been doing in the White House for centuries. Domestic work is traditionally work that happens in private. But for a first lady, who serves as a living embodiment of American family values, that work suddenly becomes public — and open to public scrutiny.

There’s no avoiding the fact that first lady duties, whether performed by a finishing-school graduate barely out of her teens or a Harvard-educated lawyer, are seen as women’s work.

From the very first presidential wife, Martha Washington, to the most recent, Michelle Obama, the duties of the first lady have grown in scope and in scale. Initially tasked with setting the tone for the Washington social scene and using her position to serve as a model for other women nationwide, the first lady became, as the nineteenth century progressed, the first real public woman in America, charged with receiving foreign dignitaries, national politicians, and celebrities on behalf of the president. Later, as notions about what a woman could do outside the home began to shift, the job also meant that each first lady had to pick a (not too controversial) cause: preserving American monuments, keeping kids away from drugs, getting everyone to eat more vegetables.

But there’s no avoiding the fact that first lady duties, whether performed by a finishing-school graduate barely out of her teens or a Harvard-educated lawyer, are seen as women’s work. And criticism of first ladies, in its focus on manners, dress, and housewifery, has underlined that — which is what makes the idea of a first gentleman so fascinating. What would it mean if we really did ask a man to do things we’ve thus far only seen women do? Would he too be feminized, or is it possible we’re ready to expand our conceptions of gendered labor?

As we look to a new kind of White House, it seems prudent to consider the White Houses of the past. Two of the most famous first ladies in particular — Mary Todd Lincoln and Jackie Kennedy — and their respective public disgrace and media triumph, set the stage for modern first ladies and what we expect of them. The stories we tell about them serve as clues to unlocking an often-misunderstood part of America’s story about itself: one that marginalizes and viciously critiques women’s work, and one that may be on the precipice of redefining that work for a new first family.

Washington society wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when Mary Todd Lincoln assumed the role of first lady. Her husband was a Westerner, and a little bit provincial, and a teetotaler. Washington gossips wondered if Mrs. Lincoln’s manners would be coarse, if her taste would be common, if she would be as charming a hostess as her predecessor, Harriet Lane (bachelor president James Buchanan’s niece). There was also the matter of her family: The Todds were slaveholders from Kentucky, and two of Mary’s brothers would die fighting in the Confederate Army. She was 43 upon assuming the role of first lady and had given birth to four children. What was to be expected of such a woman? Would she be a role model to the American wartime matron, or would she be an embarrassment, a first lady not worthy of the office?

The answer, essentially, was both. When 11-year-old William Wallace “Willie” Lincoln died of typhoid fever in 1862, Mary Todd Lincoln became the face of grieving mothers in a time when soldiers and civilians alike were dying from war, disease, and hunger. And when Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, just after the official end of the Civil War, she became an even more explicit embodiment of the nation’s losses. But Mary Todd also became a different kind of symbol: the personification of American (and feminine) excess. Her spending was lavish, to be sure, but more damaging to her public and private reputations was the simple fact that she was extraordinarily bad at the politicking of first ladyship.

The Lincolns arrived at a White House that was, to put it mildly, a little shabby; the furnishings of previous presidents had a tendency to disappear, either with departing first families or with departing staff. Mary Todd, eager to prove her bona fides as first lady, almost immediately began to address the mansion’s sorry state. Her shopping trips to New York for linen and crystal were made public information; in 1861, one Southern paper wrote, “She is expending thousands and thousands of dollars for articles of luxurious taste in the household way that it would be very preposterous for her to use out in her rural home in Illinois.”

In May 1861, Mary Todd visited the New York showroom of china company E. V. Haughwout & Co., where she placed an order for a custom set of china that would include, in part, 18 meat platters, 48 soup bowls, and a 208-piece dessert service. The total cost of the china, so fine that production had to be outsourced to a factory in France, was $3,195, which in today’s dollars comes out to nearly $86,000. Extras included a plainer set for family use, a $1,500 collection of glassware, and a gold-embossed “toilet set” (chamber pot, slop jar, and foot bath) for $145 (today’s cost: $3,800). This came at a moment in which the Union was hemorrhaging money to pay for a war that it was then losing; tenements in Northern cities housed families for $10 a month.

Washington was a small town, and everyone knew how much Mrs. Lincoln was spending. Rumors abounded that her excesses were causing strife in her husband’s relationships with Congress, whom he had to ask for money on a regular basis. She became a target for anyone hunting for gossip: Henry Villard, a prominent journalist, noted in 1861 that she was “surrounded by a common set of men and women, who, through her susceptibility to even the most barefaced flattery, easily gained a controlling influence over her.”

After the war, the grieving Mrs. Lincoln left Washington for Chicago, but judgment of her spending and her choices followed. She owed debts of nearly $25,000 and, with her husband’s estate tied up in probate, she attempted to repay creditors by selling off some of her wardrobe at a public exhibition. Newspapers quickly picked up the story; the Chicago Tribune, in October 1867, suggested, “If the American Congress of the American people have failed to meet the pecuniary expectations of Mr. Lincoln’s widow, it is because that personage failed, during his life and since his death, to inspire either respect or confidence.”

Mary Todd Lincoln’s troubles, then, were made out to be her own fault: first, for overspending, and second, for making that overspending known. An entire nation’s anxieties about money and the women who spent it were laid squarely at her feet, and she paid dearly.

In 1870 Mary Todd successfully petitioned Congress for a pension of $3,000 per year, but the damage to her public image was done. Abraham Lincoln’s reputation, on the other hand, only grew in stature after his death; even Southerners lamented his death, and now his portrait is the one most selected to hang in the Oval Office by sitting presidents. While historical analysis in recent years has become more generous toward Mary Todd, her bad reputation has mainly served to highlight Lincoln’s goodness: The popular narrative paints him as someone who, in addition to his other travails, was also saddled with a wife unsuited to her half of the job he did so well.

Lincoln’s death turned him, for many, into a martyr, which meant Mary Todd’s faults couldn’t be ascribed to him or used to cast shadows on his life and work. Not every president or presidential candidate is given such leeway: Hillary Clinton, in particular, has spent most of her career dealing with the fallout from her husband’s behavior. There is a case to be made that because she was first introduced to the nation as Mrs. Bill Clinton, it’s only natural, if not entirely fair, for us to still think about her that way nearly 20 years after she stood by his side during his 1998 impeachment trial. But while it is reasonable to ask Clinton to account for her own behavior during her 30 years in public life, including behavior related to her husband’s sexual misconduct, it’s another thing entirely to charge her with responsibility for her husband’s actions.

Mary Todd, in the eyes of those who disapproved of her, was not a reflection on Lincoln, but simply his cross to bear. Throughout the 2016 campaign season, Bill has been more than that to Hillary: He’s at best a serial philanderer and at worst a sexual predator, and yet culturally, we can’t get seem to get past asking questions about her role in his misdeeds. Just this week, in an interview with Megyn Kelly, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich — whose own moral misadventures have been public record for decades — attempted to badger Kelly into stating on air that Bill Clinton was and is a sexual predator. It’s clear that questions about Bill Clinton’s behavior aren’t going to go away as long as his wife exists in the public eye, and at this point that seems likely to be for at least the rest of their natural lives.

Even if she becomes president, Hillary will — to some —always be Bill Clinton’s first lady.

Perhaps we’re fascinated by Hillary’s actions in the face of her husband’s behavior because Bill’s public persona is so easy to understand; he’s a good ol’ boy, doing what good ol’ boys have always done. Doing, in fact, what some presidents have always done. There’s a certain segment of the population that even seems to want to justify Bill’s extramarital activity because of his wife’s ambition: Did she enable him? Did her ambition run counter to her wifely duties? Figuring out what to make of the first woman president, on the other hand (especially one who is also a wife, mother, and grandmother), has presented popular culture with questions that may be unanswerable.

That is what makes considering Bill Clinton’s new position — that of Hillary’s husband — so hard. Instead, it’s easier for the press and the public to consider their marriage as it might have been 20 years ago, and apply those standards and questions to their marriage today. That means questions like "Why did she defend him?" and "Why did she stay?" and "what went wrong at home?" become questions people feel comfortable relating not just to the private lives of Bill and Hillary, but to their public lives as well.

Think about it: Every time Trump or one of his surrogates talks about Hillary’s "bad judgment," are we thinking about emails, or are we thinking about her loutish husband? Once the suggestion has been planted, does it matter? Inevitably, even if she becomes president, Hillary will — to some —always be Bill Clinton’s first lady.

A hundred years after Mary Todd Lincoln left the White House, another first lady with an eye toward improving its appearance moved in. Though she would experience tragedies that mirrored those of Mary Todd’s, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy used the successes and mistakes of her predecessors to refashion not just life in the White House but the very role of first lady — into something resembling, more than ever, a job.

No one ever questioned the quality of Jackie’s taste. In fact, from her husband John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 until her death in 1994, she was, for American women of varied backgrounds, taste personified. Born in New York and educated at elite schools, Jackie’s mid-Atlantic accent and Oleg Cassini–designed wardrobe made marriage and homemaking seem positively glamorous (she greeted Jack with a martini at the end of every day! her maternity clothes were couture! her children spoke French!). The image endured even when the reality was anything but: Her husband was having affairs too numerous to be chronicled here, and in 1963 she gave birth to a son, Patrick, who died two days later. Jackie, upon leaving the hospital, presented each staff member who had assisted her with a signed lithograph of the White House.

The Kennedy administration was alternately praised and lambasted for bringing a new, vaguely shallow set of political figures into vogue. Promotional materials for the campaign included large-scale photos of the couple and their children (a first), and Jackie was regularly named in the best-dressed columns of every publication that carried such a thing. Far from being genuinely shallow, the Kennedys, and Jackie especially, understood that medium was just as important as message. And if done right, the two could fuse into one powerful entity that expressed values, ideas, and even policy to the nation without breaking a sweat — a feat first ladies of the modern era would struggle with until Michelle Obama’s ascension in 2008.

Like Mary Todd Lincoln, Jackie inherited a White House that was in dire need of sprucing up. After years of wear and of first ladies more interested in public service outside of the capital (Eleanor Roosevelt) or promoting domestic economy (Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower), furniture was broken, wallpaper was peeling, and china was missing. Restoring the White House, then, would be Jackie’s project. But she wouldn’t be restoring it for her own pleasure. As Americans increasingly worried about tensions with the Soviet Union, the White House would become a classroom, a monument, and a symbol and of all that it meant to be American.

Having the advantage of an excellent education and even better connections, Jackie displayed a level of political acumen in her quest to redecorate that could have rivaled anyone in her husband’s cabinet. Founded in 1961 at her behest, the White House Historical Association is a nonprofit dedicated to “the purpose of enhancing the understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the Executive Mansion.” While the National Park Service assisted in the charter of the WHHA, it was and remains a private nonprofit. That means that even though an estimated $2 million was spent on redecorating the Kennedy White House, the funds came from private donors — not the federal budget. Using opt-in donations signaled that this White House wasn’t a government-funded palace for an elite few politicians and their spouses to luxuriate in. It was a symbol of our commitment to America’s history; it was a project we were all in on together.

On Valentine’s Day, 1962, CBS and NBC aired A Tour of the White House With Mrs. John F. Kennedy, a 90-minute documentary hosted by CBS News’ Charles Collingwood. The film was watched by 80 million people and syndicated in 50 countries, and featured Jackie and Collingwood walking through rooms of the mansion-cum-museum. They paused to interpret the significance of items like the first letter ever written from the White House (John Adams to his wife, Abigail) and, in a bit of brilliance from Jackie, reproductions of Mary Todd Lincoln’s china service, which first ladies from Jackie on would deploy judiciously at important state dinners. Lincoln, by the middle of the 20th century, had become the president both old and young political figures could agree upon, and referencing him through objects has been something presidents and first ladies would (and still) do whenever it seemed necessary to project an almost extra-political air of service to the country.

It would have been easy for Jackie to play up the hard and professional work that went into the restoration. Instead, her affect in the special is decidedly wifely. At one point, Collingwood asks her if she thinks there is or ought to be a special relationship between government and the arts, and she demurs: “That’s so complicated. I don’t know. I just think that everything in the White House should be the best — the entertainment that’s given here and, if it’s an American company that you can help, I like to do that. If it’s not, just as long as it’s the best.”

At the end of the tour, JFK makes a carefully calculated appearance (the handsome husband returning to his beautiful wife and the home she’s lovingly assembled for their nuclear family), and Collingwood asks the president what he thinks of his wife’s project. His response is a perfect distillation of her image as first lady. “I think if [people] can come here and see — alive — this building and in a sense touch the people who have been here,” JFK says, “then they’ll go home much more interested and think that they’ll become better Americans and some of them may want to someday live here themselves.”

Successful first ladies of the previous century were held up — and torn down — for their successes and failures as wives, as mothers, and as women. While Jackie wasn’t exempt from those judgments, she reconfigured the position into one of representation. After Jackie, first ladies weren’t just expected to dress or dine or shop for themselves — they were expected to do it for America.

Bill Clinton, if he lives in the White House a second time, will also be doing it for America, and this time he would actually have the chance to expand the horizons of people who might look up to him. Hillary has said many times during the course of her campaign that it isn’t just important for girls to look at politics and see themselves reflected back, but for all kinds of children (and adults, for that matter) to look at our government and see infinite possibilities. One of those possibilities involves Bill Clinton moving back to Washington not to further his own career, but his wife’s.

A politician, a businessman, a philanthropist, a husband: As Jackie Kennedy’s primary identity was that of wife to her husband, Bill’s will be husband to his wife. But unlike Jackie, the other parts of him won’t be entirely subsumed by his job as spouse. Hillary Clinton is on the precipice of proving to America that a woman can be president. Bill Clinton might be on the precipice of proving that being a husband is just as important as being the president.

In many ways, being first lady is a thankless job. Nothing in your personal life is off-limits: First ladies have been scrutinized as mothers, as wives, and as professionals, all while being expected to maintain a sense of respect for the office and while the goalposts for success are constantly being moved. And the next FLOTUS, whether it’s Bill (or Chelsea) Clinton or Melania (or Ivanka) Trump, will also face the added challenge of following Michelle Obama — arguably the most successful first lady in history, and certainly one blessed with natural charm and a keen understanding of her role.

Michelle has become a fashion icon at both ends of the spectrum, appearing in public in Versace couture and J.Crew cardigans; she’s achieved real progress in her policy cause of choice (curbing childhood obesity), while also pushing political boundaries — think of her famously reminding us in her speech at this year’s DNC that the White House was, in fact, built by slaves. All the while, she has been able to maintain historically sky-high approval ratings around 70%.

The office of first lady has, over the years, become a genuinely professional one, but the heart of the job is still to act as the president’s social arm: Think of Michelle displaying, in recent months, what appears to be genuine affection for George W. Bush. In the White House and out of it, navigating social mores has historically been the domain of women. But now there is an opportunity here for us to consider — really publicly consider — what a support system looks like when a man is doing the supporting.

For that to happen, the first gentleman will actually have to do the work (the seating charts, the tours, the interviews about what it’s really like to be married to the president, perhaps even the careful calibration of patriotic fashion) that first ladies have done before him. And we’ll have to judge his success in those roles as we judged them. The office of the first lady could be on the precipice of changing forever. If we're shortsighted enough to expect Hillary Clinton to pick out the flowers herself, it might not.

Angela Serratore is a writer, historian, and web editor at Lapham's Quarterly.

Topics in this article

Skip to footer