First Lady and First Gentleman: More than a Handbag
The world of politics and diplomacy have long been seen as highly masculine institutions. Most world leaders are male, and the number of female world leaders remains a handful. First Ladies and First Gentlemen, as the spouses of state heads around the world are called, are treated differently with different expectations and obligations. It is in these differences that their gendered roles are highlighted.
Often, while world leaders engage in dialogues and discussions, their spouses are reduced to roles that are predominantly unpaid, tokenistic and bordering on subservience. Considering the number of male leaders, most partners are female, and in a world where feminism and gender equality is often the center of diplomatic events, the treatment of first ladies is ironic.
In being in the public eye, first ladies are exposed to scrutiny and criticism that often borders on sexism. In an attempt to criticize the policies or political stances of male heads of state, it is their wives that often bear the brunt. Brigitte Macron, the First Lady of France, was recently ridiculed by a supporter of the Brazilian far-right President, Jair Bolsonaro. The supporter posted a side-by-side comparison of the French and Brazilian First Ladies to highlight the “contrasting” appearances of the two women, with the caption,
“Now you understand why Macron is persecuting Bolsonaro?”
Note that the “persecution” refers to Present Macron’s efforts to save the Brazilian Amazon rainforest from the wildfires. The post may not have gotten the attention it did, had Bolsonaro not replied to the post himself with “don’t humiliate the man.”
It is also a role that is surrounded with suspicion and doubt. Considering the first lady is not elected but remains close to the center of power and has the chance of exerting influence on decisions of national importance, several people worry that she may cloud the State Head’s judgement. Claire Underwood, in House of Cards, was the television representation of this, consistently nurturing Presidential aspirations of her own, across the show’s many seasons.
The role of a First Lady has been described by Lady Bird Johnson – widow of former US President Lyngdoh B. Johnson – as “an unpaid public servant elected by one person, her husband.” Most nations do not have a clearly defined role for the First Lady. In France, when there were intentions to carve out an official role with a salary, it was met with backlash. To perform their unpaid duties, several First Ladies have been forced to leave prominent careers in law or related fields – where they were at an equal position with, or sometimes even the ahead of their husbands. Take, for instance, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. On the 20th anniversary of Equal Pay Day, money.com highlighted the glaring wage inequality in the White House. Despite the evolution of her role from a mere hostess to a policy influencer, the First Lady does not receive a salary for the obligations she undertakes as the spouse of her President. Considering she oversees and manages a paid professional staff that receives federal funding, runs a household and promotes causes of public importance, it can be agreed to that the role of the first lady is a “full-time, all-consuming job,” quoting professor Jean H. Baker.
In late August this year, Eliza Jean Reid, the First Lady of Iceland, shared a Guardian Article that critiqued the role that the first ladies played in the recently concluded G7. In the Facebook post that she shared the article with, she said that it was “shameful to see (I hope) independent, intelligent women reduced to props for their husbands’ political agendas”. Stating that she is not her husband’s handbag, Reid insisted that it shouldn’t be taken for granted that “unelected, unpaid” spouses would accompany their husbands to official functions. Eliza Reid is an exception in a space where only a few first spouses have official jobs outside of their partner's work. It is interesting to note that the partners of female heads of state, for instance, Teresa May or Angela Merkel, work as investment bankers or in academia; while barely any female spouses have a full-time job outside of their husband’s work.
But why should first spouses have to travel with their partners to world summits, especially when they aren’t speakers or playing the role of diplomats? Such a practice delves into patriarchal ideas that a woman’s job can be left to allow her spouse’s work to flourish. At the same time, male partners aren’t expected to meet the same standards, and when they do, their presence is highlighted and appreciated. When Luxembourg’s first man, Guatheir Destenay, husband of Luxembourg’s first openly gay Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, attended the NATO summit with other Presidential female spouses (all female) his presence in a group photo where he was the only man was highlighted. It was the first time that a man featured in a photo of the spouses at the NATO summit. As always, Joachim Sauer – First man of Germany was not present. Even the participation of spouses (mostly female) are limited to activities that are considered “feminine”, including visits to charities, photo-ops at prominent monuments and medical centres, with their meetings being termed ‘pink power lunches’ and more emphasis on their outfits, than results of their meetings, if any.
First Ladies consistently pick up projects that concern only women and children. These include traditionally feminine ideas of food and nutrition, reproductive health and literacy. However, when Hillary Clinton was in the running for the role of President, several op-eds were written contemplating the role former President Bill Clinton, her husband would play, including possible roles that ranged from Secretary of State or chief mediator for the Middle East, both crucial strategic positions with international and national implications. First Gentlemen aren’t expected to take up similar ‘soft’ issues that their female counterparts do. Most, continue their previous full-time job, remaining out of the public eye. If anything, this echoes the binary division of labour that feminists have long fought to break down and the inherent hyper-masculinity that is present in world structures of politics, which sees women as more likely to do humanitarian work than strategic or security-related work.
Even the media plays out this double standard. Every first lady is adjudged from what she wore to whom she spoke to. A standard level of sexualisation is prominent, whether in the bringing up of Melania Trump’s old nudes or the age difference between President Macron and his wife, Bridgette Macron. Michelle Obama has been criticised for showcasing her shoulders in official photos and has been often compared to an ape and a man, both rooted in racial and homophobic undertones. Even Female leaders aren’t left. The Daily Mail in March 2017 ran a front-page story titled “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs it”, comparing the legs of Teresa May and Nicola Sturgeon.
Domestically, in India the role of the First Lady, whether the wife of the President or Prime Minister, has always been that of a hostess. When India got its first female President in Pratibha Patil, the office of the Presidential spouse was renovated to make it fit for its first male occupant. Most Indian first ladies remain unknown in history, save for Usha Narayan or perhaps Sonia Gandhi. The role of the first lady hasn’t yet evolved from being hostess in chief, and the First Lady rarely performs a role independently.
As the World moves towards greater recognition of the value that women bring to the workplace and the ignored value of a woman’s domestic labour, it remains apparent that the same recognition isn’t brought to the World Leader’s spouses. First Ladies and women in the broader context need to step away from the shadow of their spouses to come into roles of their own. Roles where their value is acknowledged independently and not seen as merely supportive of their husbands. But irrespective, more women need to be given a chance to come up in politics, and their husbands need to be held to the same standards as other female spouses.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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About the Author
Sitara is a graduate in Political Science from Gargi College and has a diploma in Conflict Transformation and Peace Building from Lady Shri Ram College for Women. She currently works as the Research and Communications Coordinator at the Social and Political Research Foundation. Sitara aspires to work at the intersection of diplomacy and public policy and make research more intersectional and accessible to all. She has a deep interest in foreign policy, military, politics, and gender and one day hopes to finish all the books she's bought but never read.