The First Lady: Homemaker or Policy-Maker?
Scholastic Update When President Clinton wanted to reform America's ailing health-care system, he gave the job to his most trusted adviser — his wife. For more than a year, Hillary Rodham Clinton led a Presidential task force on health care. Its job was to figure out how to fix the health-care system and present a plan to Congress. No First Lady in American history had ever had such a direct role in making Presidential policy.
While supporters cheered her on, critics attacked her for meddling in her husband's job. Her health-care plan ultimately failed, and Hillary Clinton retreated from the spotlight. But the national debate over what role the President's wife should play rages on. Traditionally, First Ladies have been expected to be outgoing, attractive, the President's main "cheerleader," and whenever possible, seen and not heard. But critics say that role is outdated: In a time when women have made huge gains in equality at home and in the workplace, why should they continue to be mere ornaments in the White House?
One reason for the controversy is that the job itself is unclear. The First Lady is not on the government payroll, yet she influences the President. She has a budget, a staff, and an office in the White House. But unlike the Presidency, her job is not defined in the Constitution. As a result, each Presidential wife has had to shape the role herself.
Most of the women who have filled the position were known more for their social skills, charm, and good looks than anything they ever said or did. The nation's first First Lady, Martha Washington, was admired most for being down-to-earth and approachable. Dolley Madison, whom historians consider the most successful First Lady, concentrated her efforts on being the best hostess in the country. She was known as a fashion setter whose radiance at official functions easily outshone the wives of foreign diplomats.
When a First Lady did take on an issue, it was usually far from the line of political fire. Barbara Bush, wife of President George Bush, championed the cause of literacy. President Lyndon Johnson's wife, Lady Bird, took on highway beautification. A model of traditional First Ladydom, she knew her place. "Remember this," she once told a White House staffer, "my husband comes first, the girls second, and I will be satisfied with what's left."
Hillary Clinton was never this kind of political wife. She had her own career as a respected lawyer, children's rights advocate, and education reformer. Campaigning for her husband in 1992, she promised a co-presidency, saying, "If you vote for Bill, you get me too."
Hillary Clinton spearheaded White House efforts on health care, breaking the tradition of First Ladies staying out of policy making.
Who Elected Her?
But many Americans say she has no business making official policy. "Americans don't want a First Lady who gives the impression that she's running things and making policies," says Paul F. Boller Jr., author of Presidential Wives. "No one elects a First Lady, so pushing the idea of a co-presidency is seen as a betrayal."
Although Clinton has since tried to lower her profile, the attacks against her continue. Republicans in Congress zeroed in on scandals like Whitewater, in which she was accused of involvement in an illegal Arkansas land deal. They also accused her of firing the staff of the White House travel office and replacing them with friends from Arkansas. Clinton denies any wrongdoing in Whitewater and says she never ordered anyone fired.
Clinton was not the first President's wife to come under attack. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, spoke out for workers and took up the cause of civil rights long before it was popular. Tall and toothy, she was not conventionally attractive. She was attacked for her looks as well as for her controversial political stands.
"Eleanor Roosevelt broke one precedent after another", says Boller. "She was the first President's wife to give interviews and she was the first to have a newspaper column. She also gave lectures and traveled for her husband, who was [disabled]."
While other First Ladies didn't speak out publicly as much as Roosevelt, history shows that many exerted a powerful influence behind the scenes. President Millard Fillmore checked with his wife, Abigail, before making major decisions. Rosalynn Carter sat in on Cabinet meetings with her husband, Jimmy. And Nancy Reagan had so much power in President Ronald Reagan's White House that she had his chief of staff fired.
By taking a more public role, Hillary Clinton has clearly broken the mold; a traditional First Lady won't necessarily appear in her place, either. Elizabeth Dole, wife of Clinton's Republican challenger, Bob Dole, has her own political career. She has held two Cabinet posts: Secretary of Transportation under President Reagan and Secretary of Labor under President Bush, and currently heads the American Red Cross.
"The debate over the role of First Ladies will continue to burn until there is a female President", says Boller. "Then the debate will turn to what role the First Hubby should play."
Will a Woman Ever Become President?
No major party has ever fielded a female candidate for President. The closest the U.S. ever came to having a female leader was when Geraldine Ferraro unsuccessfully ran for Vice President on the Democratic ticket in 1984.
Women have made gains in Congress, where 48 now serve in the House of Representatives and 8 in the Senate. And several women have served as governors. But the Presidency has remained a man's job.
"Government," says Ruth B. Mandel of Rutgers University, "is still a sea of suits."
But in other parts of the world, suits are giving way to dresses. Canada, England, France, India, Israel, and Pakistan are among the countries that have been or are currently being led by women. Women like Israel's Golda Meir, Britain's Margaret Thatcher, and India's Indira Gandhi have numbered among the world's strongest heads of state.
So why does the U.S., a pioneer in women's equality, lag so far behind? One reason is that most of the nations with female leaders have parliamentary systems, where voters elect a party, not an individual.
That doesn't mean the U.S. will never elect a woman President. "The time will come when there will be a woman President," says Carol H. Meyer, editor of a feminist magazine. "But not before we deal with the sexist attitudes that still pervade American culture ."