“The First Lady,” a Title in Transition

By Beatrice Endler ’17

Since 1789, the First Lady of the United States has been a vibrant hostess, an intellectual, a teacher, an artist, or a changemaker in her own right. This woman stands beside and supports the president. With the 2016 election, however, the spouses of the two leading candidates, Bill Clinton and Melania Trump, have the potential to stir things up. Bill Clinton would eliminate the title of First Lady, and Melania Trump would become the second foreign-born First Lady who is also one of few to have worked in mass media.

Since the beginning of U.S. presidential administrations, the First Lady has often been an influential or impressive individual, but not necessarily in the political sphere. According to the National First Ladies’ Library, Louisa Adams was not only the first and only foreign born First Lady, as she hailed from England, but she also “played the harp, wrote satirical plays and raised silkworms.”

Lou Hoover spoke Chinese fluently and was the first female graduate of Stanford University, where she earned a geology degree. Before marrying Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan was a professional actress. Abigail Fillmore was a schoolteacher, and was also the “first presidential spouse…to earn a salary before marriage” to the president-to-be.  

Margaret “Peggy” Taylor rejected her duties as hostess of the White House and instead passed that responsibility off to another female relative; she also knew how to handle a gun. Pat Nixon was “the first first lady to wear pants in public.” Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson “lobbied for environmental protection.” Abigail Adams, in a letter to her husband, famously wrote: “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws … I desire you would remember the ladies.”

Pictured above, from left to right, Bill Clinton and Melania Trump (Photo: Beatrice Endler)

Pictured above, from left to right, Bill Clinton and Melania Trump (Photo: Beatrice Endler)

If one of the two currently leading candidates, Clinton and Trump, is to win the presidency, this longstanding pattern of admirable and impactful First Ladies is about to get flipped on its head.

If Hillary Clinton wins, Bill Clinton will assume the post of First Lady. Seeing as he is a male, however, the title of First Lady no longer seems fitting. First Gentleman is the name that comes to mind immediately, but there are some other titles in contention: First Fella, First Bloke, First Lord, First Partner, or even First Man.

Bill Clinton served two terms as President of the United States. According to an NPR Timeline, the House voted to impeach Clinton in 1998 after he lied about having an affair, but the Senate determined him not guilty. Since the end of his second term in office in 2001, Clinton went on to be the “U.N.’s special envoy for tsunami relief in Asia” in 2005.

If Donald Trump is to win the presidency, Melania Trump, his third wife, would assume the post of First Lady, and as the New York Post jested, she would be “the only one to [have] pose[d] nude on a bearskin rug.” Melania was born in Slovenia in 1970, and she began to professionally model in Milan at 18.

She has a degree in design and architecture from the University of Milan, and “she has graced the covers of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, British GQ, Ocean Drive, Avenue, In Style, and New York Magazine”. Her photos have made it into other magazines including the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, Glamour, and Vanity Fair.

Much like Nancy Reagan and Mamie Eisenhower, Melania Trump has also appeared in television commercials, including an Aflac advertisement. Nancy Reagan, in contrast, delivered an anti-drug abuse message as a part of her “Just Say No” campaign in the 1980s and 1990s.

Despite all of this teasing, Melania’s philanthropy is quite impressive. She has been the “Honorary Chairwoman for The Boy’s Club of New York for five consecutive years, and in 2005, The American Red Cross awarded her the position of Goodwill Ambassador, which she has proudly served for four years,” in addition to many of her other humanitarian efforts.

With so much media attention on who the future president will be, it is important to take a moment to look at the next president’s right-hand man or woman. Although the spouses of the candidates should not be the deciding factor at the polls, it is interesting to evaluate the past and present actions of the upcoming First Ladies and First Gentlemen. Through this evaluation of the prospective presidential spouses, voters can think about their possible influence in the future as they stand beside the president and take residence in the White House, and perhaps the people of the United States can compare these expectations to the impressive feats of the change-makers and intellectuals the United States has witnessed among the 44 First Ladies before them.