Editor's note: Catherine Allgor is a history professor at the University of California at Riverside and an adviser to the National Women's History Museum. Her latest book is "The Queen of America: Mary Cutts's Life of Dolley Madison."
(CNN) -- When Dolley Madison swanned onto the Washington scene in pink satin and ermine in the early 19th century, she created a new role for first ladies. The president's wife could appear larger-than-life on the public stage, imparting emotional and psychological messages about her husband to the public.
Our most famous first ladies were charismatic figures: Dolley Madison's message confirmed the Madison administration's legitimacy and authority; Eleanor Roosevelt helped Depression-weary Americans feel hopeful and virtuous; Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy showed the world that the Kennedys were a new breed of young, modern, cosmopolitan Americans. Our current first lady belongs to this tradition. Michelle Obama, dressed in J. Crew, with her little girls and career firmly in hand, assures us that people like us are in power.
Of course, many first ladies have preferred to remain in the background. Mamie Eisenhower famously insisted on remaining a largely domestic creature. Barbara Bush proudly eschewed the spotlight, while her daughter-in-law Laura -- perhaps one of the most productive recent first ladies -- did her work quietly and without a lot of fuss. Still, even the most modest of presidential wives can help a president or candidate seem more human and less a political machine.
When Ann Romney mounted the platform at the Republican convention, she appeared to be a first lady wannabe of the second camp. She, too, is proudly domestic and puts herself outside politics. And she seems, well, like a perfectly nice woman -- the kind you'd like to have as a neighbor. When she began her speech, "Tonight I want to talk to you from my heart about our hearts" and "Tonight I want to talk to you about love," it looked as if Ann Romney was about to tell her personal story in an effort to warm and fuzzy up her rather remote and stiff husband.
One might say no candidate's wife has had so great an opportunity to make a difference. No matter if they support or decry Mitt Romney's politics, people generally agree that Romney doesn't always seem human, much less a beacon of compassion and empathy. But the need to make Mitt more personable is so great that, in planning Ann Romney's speech, his advisers may have overreached.
After her initial talk about love, instead of relating personal anecdotes, she went on to address remarks to hardworking families and especially women "who have to do a little more." It seems her husband's handlers recognize that in addition to Mitt's personality, Republican policy needs warming up a little too. Can Mitt bring love and empathy to people who are struggling, even to people whose lives are so different from his own?
Ann Romney had to humanize Mitt as the husband and father she trusts and whom we can trust. In that, she was on steady ground in telling her "When Mitt Met Ann" story, positively beaming when she spoke of being a wife and mother. Women in the hall clapped their hands off for that.
But she was not in her element in her evocations of sighing mothers at the end of a hard day, in offering insights and empathy for women and families struggling to pay bills, to buy gas and food. That's too much for her to do. She has neither the personal nor the professional authority to talk about the difficulties of poor, working-class or even middle-class Americans.
Her remark about women doing more, and doing it happily, is cringe-worthy: Does she know that with women making, at the best, about 80% of what men do, they have to do more just to break even?
I understand Mitt Romney's advisers are in a tough position. Democrats are painting him as a heartless capitalist, ruthlessly firing and downsizing to make Bain Capital one more dollar. Even loyal Republicans, who will support Romney to the end, aren't excited about the guy. But don't put it all on Ann's shoulders. She can't be Dolley Madison and Mamie Eisenhower at the same time. No woman should have to work that hard.
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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Catherine Allgor.