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A Doll’s House?

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.1 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.2

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 his White Housework. Jackie beautified the White House; Lady Bird Johnson beautified the highways. Then followed a series of Projects so discreet that few remember them—volunteerism for Pat Nixon, handicapped children for Betty Ford (her “dependency” work came after the White House), mental health for Rosalyn Carter. Mrs. Reagan, more audibly, said no to drugs, and Mrs. Bush encourages literacy. Mrs. Quayle, standing in the wings, has declared disaster relief her project.

These Projects exemplify the social good works of the well-born that Thorstein Veblen considered a “conspicuous consumption” of socialites’ time.3 They resemble the mission societies to which ladies flock in Dickens’s novels—or in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “Right then and there I made a pledge in my heart. I said to myself, when I go home I’m going to give a course on the Mrunas and bring J. Grimes Everett’s message to Maycomb.”4 This kind of activity not only conforms to one of the oldest stereotypes of female concerns but sends a message by its very singleness: The isolable problem can be tended, in a stable society, without calling into question the whole set of social forces that contribute to the problem. Out of the entire syndrome of inner-city dysfunction, drugs and literacy are treated as self-contained matters, addressable as such. That is why so little impact has been made on either problem. The point of these Projects is not to engage larger political remedies, involving many agencies and issues. The Project was designed to let a First Lady avoid controversy.

It is not surprising that the president’s wife should exemplify the most conservative notions of a woman’s place. The president himself has an ambiguous station in our history. He, too, posed title problems to the electorate. What to call our non-king puzzled the Republic’s first generation. “Mr. President” was finally chosen after more honorific terms had been suggested and abandoned. As head of state, the president symbolizes values like continuity and stability, just as a hereditary monarch does. That is why the type has been so fixed—a white, male, married Protestant, middle to upper class, with children and dogs. He comes straight out of Central Casting. The exceptions only underline the rule. One bachelor (Buchanan). One Catholic—and not till 1960. No divorced man till 1980. No woman, Jew, or African American.

Other societies, even more sexist than ours, have had women leaders of government—Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher. But those women came up through parliamentary ranks—and more conventional types were installed as ceremonial heads of state. Our president is both the head of state and head of government—which explains the pressures toward familiarity and repetition. If even the elected member of the marriage is a conservative symbol, how can we expect the unelected spouse to break out of the more severe inhibitions put, in the past, on female conduct?

Yet changes are coming, and fast. No part of our society—not even African Americans, or gays, or Catholics—has had its social role more drastically redefined than the female part. Girls now grow up expecting higher education, work, careers, the power to choose their future. The pill gave new autonomy to women’s sexual activity, as abortion has to their fertility (once the defining aspect of womanhood). The pattern of the traditional president’s wife could not be more distant from this generation’s experience and aspirations—a fact confirmed by the resistance to Mrs. Bush’s appearance at the 1990 Wellesley College commencement. She seemed, to some, a visitor from another era.

In the future, it will be hard to find a spouse of the Barbara Bush type linked to any rising politician. This is not simply because of Hillary Clinton. Other candidates have had lawyer-wives (Nicola Tsongas, Ruth Harkin, Hattie Babbitt, Marilyn Quayle) or spouses of some other professional commitment. If Hillary Clinton should break the barrier, it will be by inches only. And if not she, then another, soon. Whoever the new-model wife, she will break rules on the scale of another Eleanor. Future Noras are clearly going to find, in the White House, their Doll’s House.

If Hillary Clinton does it, she will be an appropriate symbol of her sisters’ concerns. When she returned to give the commencement address at her college, it was the second time she had spoken to Wellesley graduates. In 1969, her classmates had demanded that they be given, finally, some voice at their own commencement. They chose Hillary Rodham, the president of their student government, to be the first such speaker, and she consulted widely to find out what others wanted her to say. It was the earliest public indication of her concern that young people be given more responsibility for their own lives. This desire, she said, is not a mere “liberal” or radical thing:

There’s a very strange conservative strain that goes through a lot of New Left collegiate protests that I find very intriguing because it harkens [sic] back to a lot of the old virtues, to the fulfillment of original ideas. And, it’s also a very [sic] unique American experience. It’s such a great adventure. If the experiment in human living doesn’t work in this country, in this age, it’s not going to work anywhere.

The speech got coverage in the national press, so that when Peter Edelman, who was Robert Kennedy’s legislative assistant until Kennedy’s death, was asked to put together a conference of young leaders and old, he called the newly graduated Hillary Rodham to come as a young leader. At the conference, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Hillary met several people who would continue to be important in her professional life, including Vernon Jordan and Edelman himself. Edelman had recently married Marian Wright, the veteran of the civil rights movement who was the first black woman to pass the bar in Mississippi. When Marian Edelman spoke at Yale Law School during Rodham’s first year there, the law student was so impressed that she asked to work during her summer break for Ms. Edelman’s nascent Washington Research Project (which would soon become the Children’s Defense Fund). Edelman said she could not, yet, pay Hillary anything; but Hillary got a grant for civil-rights research that supported her during her first summer in Washington. Edelman sent her to work with Walter Mondale’s subcommittee studying the plight of migrant workers ten years after the explosive documentary Harvest of Shame. Rodham did interviews with workers and their families, assessing the hardships their children suffered. It was the beginning of a long engagement with these problems. In later summer projects, she studied children’s cases in California and in segregated schools.

Back in New Haven, she became involved in the Yale Child Studies Center, working with Sally Province on infant distress. Rodham got permission from the law school to fashion a special (extra) year of study devoted to children’s rights under the law. She did research for a book, Beyond the Best Interests of the Child, written by her family law professor, Joseph Goldstein, and other faculty members.5 This was the first of three widely used volumes that explored the inadequacies of the legal formula that guides courts in cases of child abandonment, neglect, or abuse. Judges are supposed to consult “the best interests of the child.” The book made the point that these interests cannot be considered in isolation from the real limits of each situation. The authors proposed a new standard: “The least detrimental available alternative.”

This standard was made real to Hillary Rodham because she had also volunteered to work with the New Haven Legal Services. One case she dealt with involved a foster parent, a black woman in her fifties, who had raised a child of mixed (black-white) parentage while the competency and claims of the birth parents were contested in the courts. “The woman was caught in a classic bureaucratic bind,” Hillary Clinton recently said in an interview. The courts decided, after a long process, that the parents had relinquished all claims, but that the “best interests” of the child could not be served by the foster parent, who now wanted to adopt the child, since that parent was fifty years old, single, and not prosperous. The court took the child away from the one concerned source of stability in her life, and put her back in a foster home to await a possible adoption that might serve some ideal “best interests.” Joseph Goldstein told me that his book did not advocate court intrusion into family life. It tried to set standards for the least detrimental intrusion where that became necessary to protect the rights of the child. “The proof that we set useful guidelines is that the book has been translated into Japanese, French, Swedish, Danish, and other languages, where the cultures of child-raising are all different.”

  1. 1

    Conover Hunt-Jones, Dolley and the “Great Little Madison” (American Institute of Architects, 1977), pp. 12–17.

  2. 2

    Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (Norton, 1971), p. 612.

  3. 3

    Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (Penguin, 1967), p. 96.

  4. 4

    Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (Lippincott, 1960), p. 244.

  5. 5

    Joseph Goldstein, Anna Freud, and Albert Solnit, Beyond the Best Interests of the Child (Free Press, 1973).

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