With recent revelations surrounding President Trump’s alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, First Lady Melania Trump has received increased media scrutiny over the past couple of weeks. In particular, her decisions to cancel her visit with Trump to Davos and to travel separately from the president to the State of the Union have led to speculation surrounding the state of the First Couple’s marriage. Since the earliest days of the Trump campaign, observers have noted the seemingly uncomfortable, unhappy nature of her relationship with President Trump, which has manifested itself in very public ways—such as the First Lady’s choice not to immediately move into the White House following the president’s inauguration or when she was filmed slapping Trump away as he tried to take her hand while exiting Air Force One.
As both a woman and a feminist, I’ve struggled with how to approach and analyze Melania Trump’s role within the Trump presidency. Unlike the First Daughter, Ivanka Trump, the First Lady doesn’t appear to savor the spotlight or the influence that comes with her proximity to the president. She rarely makes speeches, rarely makes public appearances, and rarely engages in political commentary—unless one chooses to include the sporadic work that she’s done for her national campaign against cyberbullying. Coupled with allegations of President Trump’s sexual misconduct, infidelities, and clear misogyny towards female opponents, one can’t help but wonder if Melania Trump’s passivity should be interpreted as her being a complicit part of a questionable administration or as her wanting to part with an unquestionably unhealthy marriage.
“Regardless of her previous contributions to business, scholarship, or the arts, when a woman steps into the position of First Lady, her marriage to the president becomes her sole defining achievement.
On the partisan stage of Washington D.C., restrictive expectations surrounding the First Lady’s role have always resulted in a muted performance from even the best political actors.
Regardless of her previous contributions to business, scholarship, or the arts, when a woman steps into the position of First Lady, her marriage to the president becomes her sole defining achievement. Of course, the concept of a woman being defined by her relationship with men is a patriarchal motif that is unfortunately neither new nor exclusive to the White House. Yet, it’s impossible to ignore the added pressures and responsibilities that further constrain a First Lady’s agency as the wife of the president. Her husband may be the one who takes the Oath of Office, but immediately following Inauguration Day, she also becomes bound to the specific duties and obligations expected of the First Lady.
As First Lady, she’s no longer just married to just the president, but becomes married to the nation that he serves and its complicated construction of gender roles. In the phrase “First Lady” alone lies the loaded semantics behind the term lady, a word with significant implications surrounding both femininity and class. A cursory glance at the dictionary reveals that a “lady” is a “refined, polite woman of high social status.” To be a lady is to be polished, to be poised, and to be posh. But to be the First Lady is to wield all of these traditionally feminine qualities while also emulating an archaic, but uniquely American form of femininity: Republican motherhood.
Republican Motherhood (with Republican being used in the sense of the political philosophy rather than the GOP) is an approach surrounding women’s roles that emerged during the American Revolution and has continued to remain a subtle part of American culture. This mindset is based on the belief that women ought to become civically engaged in order to serve as custodians of civic virtue for their husbands and children. Republican Motherhood was the vessel that encouraged women to become politically active so long as they upheld the premise that women’s actions ought to be motivated by a domestic desire to better their families. Such a philosophy allowed women to enter the traditionally masculine political sphere while also limiting their involvement by basing their participation solely on conventionally feminine incentives.
Remnants of Republican Motherhood are still pervasive in the Office of the First Lady today. As the First Lady, Melania Trump is now expected to be politically engaged in such a way that is not driven by her own passions, but rather the civic needs of her husband (who holds the Office of the President) and her children (who now compromise of the immediate First Family and the children of America.). Her campaign to combat cyberbullying fits well within the pattern of First Lady initiatives that seek political change in a way directly beneficial to America’s youth and emulate stereotypically feminine qualities such as compassion, empathy, and a desire to nurture others. A cursory review of previous campaigns from First Ladies reveal similar qualities across partisan lines—be it Michelle Obama’s efforts to get children to eat healthier and exercise more, Laura Bush’s efforts to increase family literacy, or Hillary Clinton’s efforts to promote healthcare.
“In truth, is there really anything objectionable about First Ladies historically supporting causes that have been primarily in service to our nation’s children?
So, how are we, as American citizens, to process the mantle of Republican Motherhood that’s continuously been placed upon our First Ladies? In truth, is there really anything objectionable about First Ladies historically supporting causes that have been primarily in service to our nation’s children? Or that their issues have been considered stereotypically more feminine due to their more nurturing political perspective? The way we ask and answer these questions will further define our identities as feminists and Americans.
If our critiques surrounding this political office and its agendas are mainly driven by a disdain for their feminine frameworks, then we’ve hypocritically adopted a misogynistic approach by assuming that all things traditionally feminine are automatically inferior in their impact. Additionally, if our critiques surrounding this political office and its agendas are mainly driven by a frustration about the limited powers associated with the role, we betray our nation’s democratic values. America is not a monarchy or a dictatorship where power is automatically assumed by our head of state’s immediate family. As a result, the First Lady ought to have some limitations surrounding her political influence, since she’s not an elected official.
Ultimately, our critiques and our recommendations surrounding the Office of the First Lady should be rooted in the main value that all feminists and Americans hold most dearly: equality. And specifically in our case, the equality of political spouses. We must ask ourselves ceteris paribus -all things equal -what roles and expectations we would ask of a First Man in the White House. Imagine a universe where Melania Trump became the President of the United States and Donald Trump became her First Man. Would we be agonizing over the First Man’s cold attitude towards the president if she was the one with multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, infidelity, and misandry? Would we restrict his activism based on an ideology that requires him to frame all of his political activities based on how they would benefit his wife and children? These are all questions that we must explore if we seek to build a more egalitarian society.
Looking back at the ways past administrations have handled presidents’ extramarital affairs and particular dynamics within the Trump Administration, it’s unlikely that First Lady Melania Trump will be filing for divorce any time soon. And given our nation’s complex history surrounding gender and Republican Motherhood, it’s unlikely that we’ll be divorcing ourselves entirely from the Office of the First Lady. However, within any relationship, be it personal or political, there’s always room for some counseling. So, while the Trumps go to marriage counseling, it’s time for us to reflect upon how we, as a nation, can grow in our relationship surrounding the treatment of political spouses. Because if political society expects First Lady Melania Trump to stand by her man, then you’d better believe we’re going to be planning of a future where one day a First Man will have to stand by his woman.