Hillary Clinton was pointedly introduced, at this year’s meeting of the American Bar Association, as “the next First Woman.” First Lady has been tainted by association with such phrases as “the little lady.” But First Woman hardly solves the problem. When a woman is elected president, it will make as little sense to call her husband the First Man (what ever happened to Adam?) as to call him the First Gentleman (what ever happened to Beau Brummel?). The spouse’s role in our republic properly has no title. Kings have queens, and princes have princesses; but there is no presidentess—nor a Mrs. President. (In the latter case, the spouse of the first woman president would be—Mr. President.)
Since the president’s spouse has no constitutional office, title, or salary, some people resent a spouse’s influence on policy or politics. “We did not elect her to anything.” It has ever been so. Dolley Madison served, for a time, as her husband’s secretary; but she hid that fact from the public. She already knew what Rosalyn Carter would learn to her cost when she sat in on cabinet meetings, what Nancy Reagan learned when she made personnel decisions. Eleanor Roosevelt carefully wrote out the rules for being a proper wife of the president:
Always be on time. Never try to make any personal engagements. Do as little talking as humanly possible. Never be disturbed by anything. Always do what you’re told to do as quickly as possible. Remember to lean back in a parade, so that people can see your husband. Don’t get too fat to ride three on a seat. Get out of the way as quickly as you’re not needed.
Mrs. Roosevelt did not break every one of those rules—she could always ride three on a seat. But most of them she shattered with flair. She lived in a time of crises; her husband was also breaking the rules; government was itself being redefined, and vastly expanded, in the grips of Depression and world war. Mrs. Roosevelt visited the troops, in the Pacific Theater and in Britain, like a queen mother. During this war on an imperial scale, she became a kind of democratic empress, a task for which her upper-class breeding fitted her as much as did her lower-class sympathies.
Many things did not go back to “normal” after the war—but the role of the president’s wife did. Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower were more seen than heard, and they were not even seen very much. Mrs. Truman stayed in Independence for long stretches when her husband was in Washington. Mrs. Eisenhower was so reclusive as to prompt rumors about secret drinking. Things began to change with the far more visible Jacqueline Kennedy, who created the expectation that every president’s wife should have her very own Project—just one, vaguely uplifting, ladylike—to keep her out from under her husband’s feet as he did …