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.