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Lady Politics: What It Means to be the First Lady in the Twenty-First Century

Ted Cruz and Donald Trump recently had an epic throwdown through Twitter—and this time, their wives were involved. The first punch came from the Cruz’s side, though Ted Cruz publicly announced that it was not issued by his official campaign team. It was a nude GQ Britain photo of Melania Trump, Donald Trump’s wife and a former professional model. The photo was captioned with meme-reminiscent text, reading, “Meet Melania Trump. Your next first lady. Or, you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday.” This is a pointed message that she is unfit to be the next first lady. Why? Because she was naked.

The punch was an irresistible opportunity for Trump. He fired back over twitter, putting side-by-side comparison photos of Melania Trump and Heidi Cruz—and a particularly unflattering one at that—noting: “The images are worth a thousand words.” Thus with a few pointed barbs on social media, the two sides managed to throw “the wives” into the inflammatory tornado that is already the Republican presidential campaign. In all this, Melania Trump and Heidi Cruz’s own respective successful careers are conveniently ignored. Melania Trump—an accomplished professional model turned jewelry and watch designer—became the naked lady in GQ. Heidi Cruz—an investment manager at Goldman Sachs who served in the former Bush Administration’s National Security Council—became Cruz’s blonde, un-photogenic wife.

During Ben Carson’s run for the Republican presidential nominee, his wife, Candy Carson, came under intense derision for being “too ugly” to be a first lady; pictures juxtaposing Candy Carson’s photos on the campaign trail with those of the glamorous Michelle Obama—dressed in various designer gowns—were widely circulated on social media. Similar to Heidi Cruz and Melania Trump, Candy Carson—a Yale graduate and a former concert violinist who co-founded the Carson Scholars Fund with her husband—was simply reduced to Ben Carson’s ugly wife.

Public scrutiny is an inevitable price tag for anyone with political eminence. The President of the United States is the ultimate emblem of domestic political fame, and quite literally everything about the individual is constantly scrutinized, analyzed by the rest of the United States. Was Barack Obama born in Kenya? What were Barack Obama’s political views ten years ago? Does he smoke marijuana? Though some questions straddle the line of absurdity, these inquiries almost always arise from an understandable curiosity about the nation’s leader.

However, for current and possibly soon-to-be first ladies, the questions reflect a rather different curiosity. The primary exposure of these women (most often females, though America is seeing, for the first time, the possibility of a first gentleman) comes from photos taken on the campaign trail. The American public first sees their looks, their outfits, and their ways of smiling, then their poise, mannerisms, and femininity. Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan gained their unmatched public fame through good looks, sophisticated glamour, and reserved poise, topped by an unblemished relationship with their husbands and children.

Unfortunately, the trend traverses party lines. Hillary Clinton, a Democratic presidential hopeful, has been regularly savaged for her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky during his time in the White House. Donald Trump, in his now predictably inflammatory rhetoric, let one of his staffers retweet a Texan college student’s sexist jab at Clinton: “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” To the general American public, Hillary Clinton’s credentials as a successful lawyer and the former Secretary of State are diluted by her experience as a former First Lady who couldn’t satisfy the President’s sexual needs.

The FLOTUS—the First Lady of the United States—occupies a rather mystical space of simultaneous overexposure and informality. The First Lady is not appointed through votes, but the title is simply gained through a marriage to the President; however, the First Lady is also an unarguably public role, subject to intense public exposure and scrutiny. The extreme proximity of the First Lady to federal politics also gives her role a political character, providing her the platform to pursue various charitable causes and political activism. She regularly greets and mingles with foreign dignitaries and accompanies the President to various events, serving as, at the least, an important face of the White House.

Michelle and Barack Obama at the 2015 annual State Dinner (Source: NY Magazine, “Michelle Obama Killed It in Vera Wang at Last Night’s White House State Dinner”)
Michelle and Barack Obama at the 2015 annual State Dinner (Source: NY Magazine, “Michelle Obama Killed It in Vera Wang at Last Night’s White House State Dinner”)

Nevertheless, the First Lady remains a largely fetishized figure in American politics. Much of the First Lady’s public acceptance and popularity comes from her style, looks, and decorum, and her political activism, if any, is expected to remain within the boundaries of non-divisive humanitarian issues. Michelle Obama, who is deemed one of the most active First Ladies, pursued such universal initiatives as fighting childhood obesity and gathering support for military families. On the other hand, she became a prominent part of popular culture, regularly included in various fashion magazines’ well-dressed list for her “sartorial elegance.” At the 2015 State Dinner, Michelle Obama broke the Internet with her glamorous black Vera Wang dress and glossy side-swept locks; and it was precisely this moment that was captured and compared with Candy Carson’s photo with her husband on the campaign trail.

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at the United Nations in July 1947 (Source: Wikipedia)
Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at the United Nations in July 1947 (Source: Wikipedia)

If there has been a notable exception to the trend, it was Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Administration, was unprecedented in her outspoken and dynamic political activism. She was a vocal supporter of the Civil Rights movement—the most polarizing issue of the time—and an active advocate for women in the workplace. She became the first First Lady to hold press conferences and speak at a national convention. Indeed, her outspokenness was controversial, and her marriage fraught; however, Eleanor Roosevelt is consistently ranked and remembered as the greatest First Lady throughout American history.

The role of the First Lady is, of course, is entirely up to the actual woman married to the President. Feminine charm and glamour should never be thought of as exclusive of political activism, nor should women be forced to pursue political routes during their times as the FLOTUS. Femininity, glamour, fashion sense, good looks, and poise do not delegitimize the First Lady’s role as a critical public figure but enhances it. Even as an officially appointed politician, a woman should never be subject to pressures to forgo her femininity to succeed among her predominantly male colleagues. However, the First Lady in the twenty-first century is no longer a docile figure restricted to the domestic realms of the White House as the President’s wife; while her decorum, as a national figure, should never be compromised, neither should her desire to be defined as an individual.

Cruz supporters turned to Melania Trump’s nude photoshoot with GQ from fifteen years ago to deem her “unfit” for the role of the First Lady, instead of directly criticizing her husband’s rhetoric. Trump responded by implying that Heidi Cruz is unattractive, instead of denouncing the objectification of his own wife. Though the Cruz-Trump throwdown is an extreme example of the overall phenomenon, one thing is certain: women in the political realm, whether simply exposed or directly participating, are subject to intense sexist hypocrisy that seeks to simplify and reduce them into sexual commodities.

It is our job as voters and popular media consumers to actively struggle against the commoditization of the current and soon-to-be First Ladies. The First Lady of the twenty-first century should no longer be viewed as a complementary accessory to the President, but as an unapologetic individual with a potential to spearhead a movement towards a greater public good.

Featured image source: AP Photo/White House/Mark Shaw)

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