Kate Andersen Brower: Every first lady found own way to navigate gender and power
Even boldest of them would be surprised by Melania Trump, Brower says
Editor’s Note: Kate Andersen Brower is the author of the best-sellers “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies” and “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House.” Unless otherwise noted, facts in this piece reflect research from those works. The opinions expressed here are hers.
If America’s most celebrated first ladies were alive today – Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy – I think they would be amazed at the prospect of a first Lady who was a former model and who had once posed nude, but I also think that Melania Trump would be far easier for them to understand than a first first gentleman such as Bill Clinton would have been. That is because these women, like Melania Trump, wielded their power discreetly and lived during a time when it would have been unthinkable for a former first lady to run for office (Hillary Clinton is the only one to do so), much less become president.
Bess Truman said the first lady’s job is to “sit beside her husband and be silent,” something Melania Trump has a lot of experience doing. I think she will be more like Bess Truman and her successor Mamie Eisenhower, who proudly announced that she had “only one career, and his name is Ike” and not at all like the two “traditional” first ladies she said she most admires: Jacqueline Kennedy – Melania Trump is 15 years older than she was when she became first lady – and Betty Ford – who was outspoken about her mastectomy and being for abortion rights. When Melania Trump says, “My hands are full with my two boys – my big boy and my little boy!” and when she insists that she is neither “needy” or “nagging,” it reminds me of Mamie Eisenhower, who said, “Being a wife is the best career life has to offer a woman.”
Melania Trump’s transition to the position of first lady will take time – it does for everyone. Michelle Obama’s first chief of staff, Jackie Norris, told me, “I think there were a lot of people saying no to her in the beginning, ‘No, I’m sorry, you can’t do this. No, I’m sorry, you can’t do that.’ ” There were growing pains for Michelle Obama, and she went through more chiefs of staff than her predecessor, Laura Bush.
The East Wing is sometimes referred to as “Guam” among West Wing staffers because it’s so far outside of the circle of power and because top West Wing aides often exclude East Wing staffers from important meetings. Then-Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel did not include Jackie Norris at the all-important 7:30 a.m. West Wing planning meeting and thereby diminished her power. It is important that the first lady stand up for her staff, as Hillary Clinton did when she was first lady, or else they will be steamrolled and it remains to be seen whether Melania Trump will be able to do that.
In the 227-year history of the American presidency, there has only been one other first lady born outside the United States: Louisa Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams who was born in London. But unlike Melania Trump, Louisa Adams grew up surrounded by politics and diplomacy as the daughter of an American diplomat and an English mother. When she got to the White House, she knew the presidency well – her father-in-law, John Adams, was the nation’s second president.
Melania Trump, on the other hand, has no experience being married to an elected official, as all other modern first ladies have had, with the exception of Mamie Eisenhower. (President Dwight D. Eisenhower had been supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II before he was elected president.) Like Bess Truman, who left Washington every chance she could get, it seems Melania Trump was not all that excited about the prospect of her husband running for president. Before Donald Trump kicked off his campaign in June 2015, his wife pleaded with him, “We have such a great life. Why do you want to do this?” He told her, “I sort of have to do it, I think. … I could do such a great job.”
I do think Melania Trump will enjoy some ultra-feminine traditional aspects of the position, as Mamie Eisenhower did, including poring over state dinner menus and approving floral arrangements. Even if Melania Trump is influential on policy decisions or as an adviser to her husband, we are unlikely to hear about it. Political savvy is something first ladies such as Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman typically deployed only behind the scenes, except in rare instances. When Hillary Clinton was first lady, she hung a large photograph of herself speaking at a podium on a wall of her West Wing office. Underneath there was a message: “You are so good, Love, Bill.” It was a display of admiration for her political acumen that I think is as unlikely in Melania Trump’s office as it would have been in Mamie Eisenhower’s.
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Jackie Kennedy was just 31 when she became first lady, making her the third-youngest first lady in history (behind Frances Folsom Cleveland, who was 21, and Julia Gardiner Tyler, who was 24). Kennedy of course is best known for her chic fashion sense, something I’m sure Melania Trump admires, but she was more plugged into her husband’s administration than she’s given credit for: She knew about his plan to get rid of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and she was a sounding board for him during the Cuban missile crisis.
She was much more than a clotheshorse; in fact, she was shrewd and unforgiving: During her astonishingly candid conversation with her friend, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jackie Kennedy called Indira Gandhi, the future prime minister of India, a “prune” and said she was “bitter” and a “kind of pushy, horrible woman” and she wondered aloud what was wrong with former ambassador Clare Boothe Luce and her “queer thing for power.”
Like all of the women who find themselves in the White House, Melania Trump will have to meet endless expectations in a role with no constitutional definition, no job description and no pay. While Abigail Adams pleaded with her husband to make laws that were “more generous and favorable” to women, women did not get the right to vote until more than 100 years after her death. And so, I think, having a woman in the position, even a woman who once posed nude and who will be the first third wife of a president, would be easier for these former first ladies to comprehend than a man married to the president.
Bill Clinton’s return to the White House after all would not have just represented a political first; it would have been a seismic cultural shift when it comes to gender roles. It is not that I think former first ladies would have disapproved, it is that they would not have been able to comprehend it.
Recently, while channel-surfing late one night, I stumbled upon the 1964 comedy “Kisses for My President” in which a hapless Fred MacMurray struggles to cope with being married to the first female president, played by Polly Bergen. Things run amok until Bergen’s character gets pregnant and decides to resign the presidency so that she can take care of their family. This ending, absurd to 21st-century audiences, would have made sense to Jackie Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt because to them, the concept of a female president was absurd in and of itself. The idea of a first gentleman would have been preposterous.
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Jackie Norris fondly remembers the time when, after the election, Michelle Obama’s staff was warmly greeted by Laura Bush’s aides and shown a blueprint of what mistakes they had made and that they hoped the incoming first lady would avoid and which events were crucial and which they could safely skip. “What they wanted,” Norris recalled fondly, “was to completely set aside politics and to help us succeed and to help Michelle Obama succeed as first lady.”
I believe that we will see the same peaceful transition of American power this January because that is what this democracy is built upon and that is what all former first ladies would expect.