The Changing Role of the First Lady

Of all the unelected positions in government, few get as much media attention as the First Lady, and Melania Trump has been no exception. Especially now as the public is still forming an opinion of the new First Lady, every word and gesture is put under the microscope. The emerging public face of Melania Trump is one of reluctance to be in the position, and this reaction is not uncommon.  

Many First Ladies, from Mary Lincoln to Eleanor Roosevelt, considered the White House lifestyle a burden. Margaret Taylor, wife of President Zachary Taylor, openly prayed for her husband to lose the election. Louisa Adams referred to the White House as a “great unsocial house which depresses my spirits beyond expression and makes it impossible for me to feel at home or fancy that I have a home anywhere.”

Other First Ladies have been supportive while remaining mostly out of the political spotlight. This category of First Lady is represented by Nancy Reagan, Jackie Kennedy and many others. Though divided by time and somewhat by social convention, these women cast themselves in a supportive role, often described as a proud and often patriotic duty to care for the president

Finally, there are those First Ladies who either remain or become very politically active and involved, treating the office of the First Lady as something far more than symbolic. Florence Harding once said, “I know what’s best for the president. I put him in the White House.” The activist First Lady is very well represented by Hillary Clinton, who approached the office with a political agenda of her own before eventually becoming the first major female contender for the presidency.

So, what kind of First Lady will Melania Trump become? It is far too early to tell. Perhaps Barbara Bush said it best: “The First Lady is going to be criticized no matter what she does. If she does too little. If she does too much. And I think you just have to be yourself and do the best you can.”