World·Analysis

Melania Trump shows U.S. may expect too much of its first ladies

Melania Trump has been a comparatively low-key first lady, prompting suggestions that the role might not have to be such a weighty one.

Job comes with no paycheque and a chorus of criticism

Melania Trump arrived at Andrews Air Force Base last June wearing a jacket that reads 'I really don't care, do u?' There is a sense that she doesn't relish the job of U.S. first lady. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

If you think your holiday obligations are endless, consider, for a moment, Melania Trump.

Her office describes December as one of Trump's busiest months. She's guided breathless TV hosts on tours of the glittering White House, participated in public gift wrappings and visited an aircraft carrier on a cheer-spreading mission.

But watching Melania Trump, there is a sense this is something she endures rather than relishes: a job that comes with no paycheque and a chorus of criticism.

In Canada, and many other countries, political spouses can fly under the radar. They travel to summits, meet the Pope, attend a ship-naming — there's scrutiny and spotlight, but it's nothing compared to the expectations placed on American first ladies. 

The chorus of criticism reached a high point after Trump did not show up for the official unveiling of the White House Christmas decorations (featuring that much-memed red forest). CNN contributor Kate Anderson Brower said Melania Trump "doesn't understand what it means to be a first lady." And Washington Post columnist Monica Hess mused: Maybe this isn't Melania's thing?

This forest of red trees, part of Trump's 2018 White House holiday decor, became an instant meme. It was compared to horror movies and the outfits worn by the oppressed women in The Handmaid's Tale. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Trump's spokesperson lashed out, saying the media fails to report on all the effort Trump has put into her traditional responsibilities.

But, in fact, Hesse said Trump's gaffe-prone, indifferent tenure proves a point: that it's ridiculous to expect the spouse of a president to be a domestic superstar.

The alternative would be to make the host of the White House a paid, government position. Then the person who happens to be married to POTUS — whatever their gender — could choose how much they do, or do not, want to participate in public life.

"That's genius," said Kathleen Donlan, chair of the University of Wisconsin political science department. Donlan says Trump's lower profile gives Americans an opportunity to re-evaluate the importance of the office.

"Places where we might expect to see the first lady, she's not there — and the world survives."

Melania Trump's deputy chief of staff for communications, Stephanie Grisham, recently criticized the media for not adequately reporting on the traditional first lady duties that Trump does carry out. One of those typical duties is reading Christmas stories to children, as Trump did last week during a visit to Children's National Health System in Washington. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Mexico first lady rejects title

Could a political spouse manage a low-key life at arguably the most famous address in the world? There would be challenges. But the White House already manages the logistics and security required for the president's children to go to school. So if a spouse wanted to ditch the East Wing and head to the office every day, it should be doable.

This is the most horrible role in the world.- Sara Sefchovich, Mexican sociologist, historian and author

Besides, it didn't go over well with many Americans when previous first ladies — such as Hillary Clinton and Rosalynn Carter — pushed beyond charity work and tackled tougher policies. So why not remove the obligation altogether and let them do their own thing?

That's what's happening in Mexico, kind of.

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, right, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Theresa May, second from left, and her husband Philip May during the G7 summit in Quebec last June. There is scrutiny and spotlight on leaders' spouses in Canada and other countries, but it's nothing compared to the expectations placed on American first ladies. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The wife of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in early December, is a former journalist and university professor. Even before her husband was elected Beatriz Gutierrez Muller said she would never assume the title of first lady, saying it was time to put an end to the office.

In Mexico, she argued, women shouldn't be identified as first- or second-class — a message that fits in with the philosophy of her husband's presidency. Lopez Obrador, a leftist, chose not to live in the opulent presidential palace, turning it into a museum instead.

But when it comes down to what Gutierrez Muller will actually do? It sounds a lot like a first lady, according to Sara Sefchovich, a Mexican sociologist, historian and author of a book about first ladies in Mexico titled La suerte de la consorte.

Beatriz Gutierrez Muller, shown with her husband, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has said she doesn't intend to assume the title of first lady. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

"She is doing all the things that first ladies do," Sefchovich said, referring to Gutierrez Muller's decision to take a specially created, unpaid role curating Mexican archives. Sefchovich believes no matter what country they live in, political spouses can't win — the criticism is relentless.

"This is the most horrible role in the world." she said.

'Substitute for royalty'

So why do women keep doing it? And why do Americans keep expecting them to? Maybe for a lot of the same reasons Canadians still largely support the Queen: tradition and history, decorated with a bit of glamour and celebrity.

"Our first family has been, in this country, a substitute for royalty," says Ruth Mandel director of the Eagleton Institute of Policy at Rutgers University.

That doesn't mean the office isn't evolving. Mandel imagines the White House will eventually be home to a female president, an unmarried president, even a gay president with a same-sex spouse. But whatever the first family looks like, it will always be important to Americans. 

Just look at Michelle Obama. The former first lady is filling arenas on a tour to promote her book Becoming. It sold three million copies in its first month, making it one of the fastest-selling non-fiction books in history. That's the kind of star power a former first lady can have.

Michelle Obama's popularity shows a first lady can have star power. Obama is pictured in November signing copies of her book, which became one of the fastest-selling non-fiction books in history. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Part of the book's allure is the candour with which she writes about her distaste for politics and the struggles she faced as a wife, mother and first lady, not to mention the unique challenges of being the first black woman to have the role.

Freed from the confines of the role, she even swore on stage during her appearance in Brooklyn earlier this month, saying of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's "lean-in" strategy of feminism: "That shit doesn't work all the time." The internet exploded in headlines and takes, most of them adoring.

Part of Obama's appeal is her authenticity. In a way, Melania Trump's absentee approach to holiday tree ceremonies is also authentic: "It's evident she doesn't like the role," said Sefchovich.

She believes Trump's lacklustre performance could open the door for future first ladies to ask whether or not they really want the gig.

"That would be true feminism in the 21st century."

About the Author

Lyndsay Duncombe

Senior Washington editor

Lyndsay Duncombe is the senior Washington editor at CBC News. She co-ordinates coverage of U.S. politics for all platforms and has worked as a producer, reporter and anchor at CBC since 2001.

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