Michelle Obama and the Fossilized Role of First Lady

By Bryce Covert |

Women make up half the workforce, get degrees in droves, and have their own careers. So it’s little wonder that a role that requires women give that all up is an awkward fit.

As long as there have been presidents in this country, there have been first ladies at their side. The role is traditionally to act as a homemaker and hostess, tending to the family and the White House. This was the purview of middle and upper class wives, after all. But now that we live in an era where women represent almost half of the workforce, pursuing independent careers and even sometimes acting as the breadwinner for their families, we’re still playing catch up. The role of first lady in particular continues to be murky and old-fashioned. Not elected, yet married to the most powerful man in the country. Highly influential, yet often resented for using that influence. And above all, educated and often professionally successful, yet expected to give up their careers. It’s an anachronistic role that has fossilized an older ideal of womanhood and wifeliness. And it traps many smart women. Enter Michelle Obama.

When Michelle Obama entered the White House, I was hopeful that we would see a return to the model of a strong first lady who stakes out an agenda. After all, she’s a Harvard-trained lawyer who had a career of her own. But I quickly became impatient. Mrs. Obama — or advisers — seemed more interested in preserving her sky-high poll numbers than giving her an aggressive agenda. She tackled obesity — but never touched agriculture policy or our health care system. She reached out to military families — but said nothing about our need to bring troops home.

I held her in contrast to Eleanor Roosevelt, who had tremendous influence on the White House and the country. But in an excerpt from her new book The Obamas, Jodi Kantor shows there may be more similarities between the two than I had been giving credit for. Kantor’s interviews “show that [Obama] has been an unrecognized force in her husband’s administration and that her story has been one first of struggle, then turnaround and greater fulfillment.” Something similar could be said about Eleanor Roosevelt, except perhaps the part about going unrecognized. Both women, successful professionally, struggled with their roles in the White House when they first arrived. Yet it seems that Obama may be starting to follow a trajectory similar to Roosevelt’s — exerting her influence over her husband’s administration and beginning to find her place. As well she should. The role makes little sense given the changes to our workforce, and smart, powerful women must make it their own.

Both women faced their coming roles with anxiety after their husbands won the election. As Kantor reports, “Even as Mrs. Obama dazzled Americans with her warmth, glamour and hospitality early in the presidency, she was also deeply frustrated and insecure about her place in the White House.” Nothing could be truer of how Eleanor Roosevelt felt about her coming duties. As Blanche Wiesen Cook wrote in her biography Eleanor Roosevelt, “After the election of November 1932, ER worried that her talents would not be used; that she would become a shut-in, a congenial hostess in the political shadows politically sidelined.” Obama tried to delay moving to the White House; Roosevelt went further and allegedly told friends she would run away with FDR’s bodyguard, Earl Miller.

This ambiguous and potentially confining role came for both women after highly successful careers that they were asked to drop upon taking up residence in the White House. Cook writes that Roosevelt “enjoyed many careers and was all in a day teacher, editor, columnist, and radio commentator” before the presidency. This was in the ’30s, before World War II opened the floodgates for women to enter the workforce, but it was a sign of changing times.

Sign up to have the Daily Digest, a witty take on the morning’s key headlines, delivered straight to your inbox.

Obama was, of course, a Harvard-trained, practicing lawyer. She exemplifies the high numbers of women seeking higher education today and moving (albeit slowly) into male-dominated professions. Obama, unsurprisingly, at first chafed at the change: as Kantor writes, “A Harvard-trained lawyer, she had given up her career for what initially seemed to her a shapeless post, and she tried to wriggle out of some ceremonial events that she saw as not having much purpose.” Roosevelt also at first obliged grudgingly — although later on went back to work as a unionized reporter, among other roles.

Both of these stories display the inherent contradictions first ladies face. Both women were/are smart and successful, yet were/are supposed to give up all public roles, become the country’s hostess, and stand by their man. It’s little wonder that upon entering, Obama told her aides she

never wanted to be the kind of first lady who interfered with West Wing business… It was her husband’s administration, not hers, she sometimes said. She had little appetite or expertise for policy detail, and she knew the history of first ladies — like Nancy Reagan and Mrs. Clinton — who had been deemed meddlers, unelected figures who wielded unearned power.

That’s what tradition dictates. But it goes against her intelligence and skills. Once in, she told her advisers she “wanted a more central role in communicating the administration’s message,” particularly in selling health care reform. West Wing advisers declined, haunted by the ghost of Hillary Clinton past.

It’s taken some time to adjust, but it looks like Obama is warming to the fact that she can make this role what she wants. Kantor writes that later on, “Michelle Obama’s trajectory in the White House was changing. She was mastering and subtly redefining the role that had once seemed formless to her, and becoming more acclimated to her new life.”

For starters, she’s begun to play a similar role within the administration that Roosevelt did: keeper of her husband’s conscience. The role of the West Wing advisors is often to figure out what deal is possible; these first ladies look for what deal is the right one. Cook wrote of Roosevelt, “FDR liked to boast that he was a “practical politician.” He knew how to compromise, make deals, be duplicitous. ER understood the nature of the game, but wanted some assurance that it would be played for the right reasons, the most needful causes.” Obama similarly, as it would seem from Kantor’s article, butted heads with advisers because she “cherished the idea of her husband as a transformational figure” and “she saw herself as a guardian of values.”

The idea that women are no longer confined to the kitchen and tending to children still makes some people queasy. But it’s been our reality for half a century. Our policies still haven’t caught up, and the role of first lady is perhaps even more outdated. Here’s hoping that Michelle Obama is allowed to take control of it, make it her own, and influence this country for the better.

Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.

Bryce Covert is the former Editor of Next New Deal and current Economics Editor of ThinkProgress.