America’s latest first lady is breaking with tradition as the first presidential spouse to keep her job while in the White House.
Jill Biden, who has a doctorate in education, is an English professor at a community college near Washington.
“I think in particular, the fact that she is in a profession that is seen as a helping profession, that is seen as not innately a controversial profession, that she will be more accepted by the American people in continuing her professional life,” says Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University. “Also, she’s in a traditionally female profession — teaching.”
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The role of first lady is not a job that is applied for, and there is no salary. While there aren’t any specific job requirements, Americans often expect first ladies to be warm, motherly figures.
“Americans see presidents as father figures and family members. That makes first ladies maternal figures and kind of the mothers of our country,” says presidential historian Barbara Perry. “Or if they’re younger, like a Jacqueline Kennedy who was only 31 when she became first lady… then they see her as an older sister or a glamorous aunt.”
Setting a standard
Eleanor Roosevelt was scorned by some for being an activist first lady who pushed for universal civil rights and social programs.
“She was more liberal than her husband and constantly pushing on civil rights, generally, women’s rights, labor rights,” says Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “She was always pressing for the social programs that she wanted and was much reviled because of that.”
While many criticized Roosevelt’s political activities, she nonetheless set a standard for future first spouses.
“When we had a couple of lower-profile first ladies immediately following Mrs. Roosevelt, I think a lot of Americans said to themselves, ‘Well this isn’t right. We want someone who’s more in the public eye, someone who has at least a major project that they are advocating for,’” Jellison says.
First lady’s role
When Jacqueline Kennedy moved into the White House in 1961, she was dismayed to find it furnished with few historical artifacts. Strongly feeling the executive mansion should reflect the artistic history of the country, Kennedy spearheaded a restoration of the White House and had a hand in preserving the neighborhood around it.
Jacqueline Kennedy poses during a tour of the White House East Room in Washington in 1962.
Ever since she embraced historic preservation in the 1960s, every first lady has adopted at least one public service project.
Lady Bird Johnson was an environmentalist who pushed for the preservation of wildflowers and other native plants. Nancy Reagan encouraged children to “Just Say No” to drugs. Barbara Bush championed literacy for children and adults, while Michelle Obama promoted healthy eating by planting a White House vegetable garden.
“Things that are related to women — children, health literacy, drugs, gardening, historical preservation — those are the things that Americans are comfortable with their first lady doing,” says Perry. “The American people have a limited role they want the first lady to play, and if she steps outside that role, they turn on her.”
Hillary Clinton learned that firsthand in 1993 after President Bill Clinton appointed her to lead his task force on national health care reform. It was an unprecedented policy role for a first lady. But fierce public backlash, some of it personally directed at Clinton, herself, helped doom the plan, which never even got a floor vote in Congress.
“We saw where that got her — much hatred, people turned on her, it didn’t pass,” Perry says. “And then, she had to go back to more soft-power approaches to being first lady.”
Behind the scenes
While first ladies are often seen as motherly symbols of American womanhood, history shows these women can have considerable behind-the-scenes influence.
A portrait of former first ladies: Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush (standing). Seated, left to right: Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford, Nov. 4, 1991 in Simi Valley, California.
“Melania Trump had a top national security adviser fired in her husband’s administration because she didn’t like the way her staff was treated on a foreign trip by this adviser. So, they can also determine who’s around the president,” says presidential historian Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First Women.” “Nancy Reagan was really the human resources department for her husband. She decided who would be in and who was out.”
And the same year she tried to push health care reform through Congress, Clinton made a quiet suggestion to her husband.
“She’s one of the reasons why Ruth Bader Ginsburg was on the Supreme Court,” Andersen Brower says. “She told her husband that she thought she would make an excellent Supreme Court justice.”
Former President Bill Clinton, left, Hillary Clinton, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Oct. 30, 2019, in Washington.
It’s an example of soft power and how private conversations between spouses can have a huge impact on the country.
“These women are really strong. I think that they’re constantly underestimated, and I think that’s partially because women in our society are often underestimated,” says Andersen Brower. “I hope and I think that we are moving in the right direction having Jill Biden as a working woman who can be both things at the same time. She can be a wife, a supporting actor, but also a strong woman.”
While Biden is redefining her current role, the biggest shake-up could come once a woman is elected president, Jellison says, and a man takes up the role of first spouse.