The Evolving Role of the First Lady

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The Evolving Role of the First Lady

Niki Bisson


“Campaign behavior for wives: Always be on time. Do as little talking as humanly possible. Lean back in the parade car so everybody can see the president”--Eleanor Roosevelt.

In the more than 200 years of America’s history, there is little known about first ladies and their effect on the American public. Many have preconceived notions of what a proper first lady should be and how one should act, but from where did this come from? Is the role of the first lady changing? In more than two hundred years of history, less than 50 women have served as first ladies representing either traditional or activist performances of the position. This study analyzes how the role of the first lady has evolved since the beginning of the position, and how first ladies influence the public, and are portrayed by the media.

While much research has been dedicated to the study of Presidents, little is known about the effect of first ladies have on the American Public. This is a lack of research creates a compelling call for examining the effect first ladies have on the American Public. Further study is also necessary because the roles of the first lady have become an institution of the presidency, the American political system, and American society. The tension between the traditional role and the modern role becomes a paradox for identity by the process of contradiction and paradox, Anderson argues (Winfield, 2007).

The study of first ladies and their influence on the public and policy is an interest to the field of communication issue because the first lady is in a position of power from which she communicates to the American public. One could argue that the role of the first lady influences women’s place in politics. Although the first lady is not elected or appointed and has no specific mention in the constitution, the position is highly regarded and the first lady is often referred to as the president’s closest and most trusted advisor. It is the job of the first lady to decide how publicly or vocally she will convey her stance on any given issue.

The inquiry of first ladies is developing into an important societal issue because the roles and rights of women have evolved and are being modified to the present day. First ladies are in a particularly vulnerable position because if they are aggressive in policy change they can be criticized for overstepping their so called role as first lady. If they are submissive and publicly quiet, they may be considered passive by the media and American people (Mueller, 2010).

After President Harry Truman left office he was quoted saying “I hope someday someone will take the time to evaluate the true role of the wife of a president and to assess the many burdens she has to bear and the contributions she makes”. This study is an attempt to understand what perceptions voters have of first lady’s, and how they fit into the “role” that has been given to them.

There is little research done on the directly influence of the presence of a first lady, and the advocacy of an issue on the American people. There is a lack of research on the new role of the first lady and the influence she has. It is widely considered that first ladies are supposed to be loyal to their husbands and not express their own views or press their agendas.

Agenda Setting

When discussing the role of the first lady and media portrayal, McCombs and Shaw’s Agenda Setting Theory can be applied to the study. According to the Agenda Setting Theory, the media tell us what to think about (Griffin, 2009). Depending on the agenda of the news station, the media can choose to portray the first lady in a positive or negative manner. The media place their agenda on the public.


An important communication issue when studying the first ladies is image. Image is built and modified by the media. A large part of public perception is developed and forms their opinions on the first lady as a whole, and how effective they are is based upon how the media covers them. The first lady and her influence on society tend to be a reflection of the President.

The framing and priming literatures suggest that all external influence over ‘what people think’ derives from telling them ‘what to think about’. When the media shape what people think about, they must logically influence what people think – i.e. their attitudes as just defined (Entman, 2010).

Former First Ladies

Dolley Madison is considered to have been very active and influential first lady; however the type of activity she was involved in differs than the ones seen today. In early years First Ladies main duties were hosting and being a companion to the president. Today, they have their own political agenda and advisors, some more than elected officials. Edith Wilson had power and made decisions during her husband’s poor health.

First ladies typically support or publicize a unique issue during their husband’s candidacy. Eksterowicz states a first lady can develop a public policy agenda independent of the president's and still rely on a partnership, either professional or personal, to help in the implementation of such an agenda (Eksterowicz, 2000). Examples include Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” and Barbara Bush’s work with literacy (Watson, 1997). Current first lady Michelle Obama is dedicated to promoting healthy lifestyles in young children so that they have the tools to maintain a healthy lifestyle throughout their adolescence into adulthood.

Several first ladies were responsible for policy changes, reform, and putting forth new laws into legislation. Hillary Clinton spent a significant amount of time during her time in the White House focused on reforming health care, and continued the effort into her time as US Secretary of State. Others include Ellen Wilson’s urban housing bill, and Eleanor Roosevelt had an appointed position in civil defense (Watson, 1997).

During the 1960’s Jackie Kennedy was regarded as one of the most influential women of that time. She was considered a fashion icon and is still highly regarded as one of the most popular first lady figures in the history of the presidency; however she did not contribute any political substance but was more suited in the traditional position.

Articles discuss Hillary Clinton and her push for healthcare reform. After Monica scandal and impeachment trial, she became a victim/sitting duck. Cohen states that her increase in polls, popularity and relevance may have significantly helped her in becoming elected as New York Senator. During the Clinton administration thirty one polls were given to the public on how Hillary was doing as a first lady.

Until Hillary Clinton, first ladies rarely spoke on any issues besides women’s issues. Cohen’s findings suggest in polls first lady remained more popular than the President. Her disapproval did not pull the presidents down, and polls suggest that first ladies are an asset over liability (Cohen, 2000). She was the first spouse of an American President to run for office, becoming New York’s Senator in 2006. She later ran for President in 2008, which cracked the glass ceiling for many women. As stated by Eksterowicz, Clinton's candidacy demonstrates the increasing influence of first ladies throughout the political and policy processes (Eksterowicz, 2000).

Media Portrayal

The media tends to portray strong women as overbearing, controlling, and manipulative. First ladies tend to take blame on issues that would otherwise be projected on their husbands (Beasley, 2006). Unless first ladies are being blamed for negative events or a controversial issue, their projects with the public and appearances do not make headlines (Beasley, 2006). The media believes that most Americans would not be interested in First Ladies separate from their husbands. The image of the first lady is presented and developed by the media as a result of how effective they are.

During the 2008 presidential election Michelle Obama received almost as much publicity as Senator Barack Obama. She was featured on countless magazine covers, daytime TV talk shows, and spoke publically at events nationwide. When asked for her opinion on the media’s coverage of women, Obama stated “People aren't used to strong women; we don't know how to talk about them" (Kerwin, 2008). The media represent the first ladies in comparison to the status of their husbands. Instead of being viewed as a separate entity, the media is reluctant to refer to the first lady separate from her husband (Beasley, 2006).

In a New York Times article featuring President Bush, author Tom Wolfe, and first lady Laura Bush, Laura Bush’s name is not stated, only a brief reference to first lady is mentioned (Beasley, 2006). Beasley states that historically, first ladies have been written off as inconsequential public figures (Beasley, 2006).

According to Roberts, the lack of coverage of first ladies, especially in higher education and general liberal studies courses can lead to the lack of knowledge concerning their roles and responsibilities. This in turn can affect the public opinion and coverage of first ladies by the media (Roberts, 2004).

Responsibilities and Job Description

In an article by Scott Kaufman, Kaufman states the job of the first lady has “no job description and no constitutional basis” (Kaufman, 2007). The role of the first lady is subjective, and it is up to each first lady to decide just how dedicated, or laid back they will be in their position.

A major part in the role of first lady is ceremonial events. Many of the Presidential events are televised, so in keeping up with tradition the first ladies tend to play host during State Dinners, and foreign dignitaries. They are American icons, traveling the world at their husband’s side. Several first ladies are not only symbols of America, but some of the most influential women of their generations.

In an article by Nelson titled “"Can Michelle Obama: Save the Democrats from disaster?" she discusses just that. The Democrats are using Michelle Obama as a campaign strategy to win over Democrats and Independents during the mid-term elections (Nelson, 2010). She was chosen because as Democrats fall in the polls, Mrs. Obama has a 68% approval rating (Nelson, 2010). Even more so of a surprising statistic, she is favored by one third of Republicans (Nelson, 2010).

A former aide to first lady Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying "The role of first lady always embodies the challenges and roles that women face -- Michelle mirrors this -- the balance between work and life and unique challenges we face as women," Finney says. "Women are trying to figure this all out; how to negotiate these varying roles. So having her out there connects with people, especially women” (Nelson, 2010).

Issue Advocacy and Causes

Myra Gutin (2000) describes the role of first lady as having undergone a progression, moving from ceremonial hostesses, to emerging spokeswomen, and finally to independent activists and political surrogates (Dubwriny, 2005).

According to Dubwriny, Independent activists and political surrogates such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, and Rosalynn Carter "used all available means of persuasion in order to influence, educate, and impress their concerns on the minds of the American people"
Corey Ealons, former director of African-American media for the White House and now senior vice president at Vox Global, echoes those sentiments. "Mrs. Obama has established a formula that fits into multiple contexts. She has not been completely disengaged in politics, but she has done so in a way that is not political. She is not going to go out and bash Republicans. Instead she will go out and advocate for the policies and issues she believes in” (Nelson, 2010).

A main cause that Laura Bush focused her attention on during her time at the White House was the rights of children and women in Afghanistan. On November 17, 2001, Laura Bush became the first First Lady to deliver a speech in the time slot usually reserved for the Presidential Radio Address (Dubriwny, 2005). Bush's address focused on the plight of women in Afghanistan under Taliban rule and drew a connection between the abuses suffered by women and the terrorist organizations sheltered by the Taliban. Bush's speech was applauded by a wide variety of critics, including feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Melanne Verveer, a former Hillary Rodham Clinton staff member (Dubrwriny, 2005).

Presidents Closest Advisor

Some have argued that the first lady is the closest advisor to the president, and the only person who understands the pressures and joys that come with the job. An example of how close of a relationship the first lady and president share is Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. In an article by Kaufman, he states that “Jimmy’s confidence in Rosalynn gave her confidence in herself and her ability to grow” (Kaufman, 2007).

CNN political analyst Roland S. Martin explains it like this: "The first lady is one of the most effective campaigners I have ever seen. Frankly, she connects with the voters much more effectively than the president. The way she relates her background as a working-class kid from Chicago resonates with people. It's like in sports, if you are down 10 points and you have a star on the bench who can score points, you take them off the bench -- you use your best players. The Democrats need Michelle Obama in the game” (Nelson, 2010).

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