Change for America, Maybe First Lady Too?

Mia Becker

The American presidency, whether Democratic or Republic, has been a part of American culture since the eighteenth century, and has followed us firmly into the new millennium. Our country has developed from the times of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, The Great Depression, the Vietnam War, two World Wars, and numerous conflicts within the Middle East, just to name a few. The administration is not only the president and his cabinet. It also includes the unconditional love and support of his spouse and extended family.

On Tuesday, Jan. 20, the United States of America welcomed our forty-fourth president, Barack Obama, and his wife, best friend for the past 16 years, and our first lady, Michelle Obama.

Obama, formerly Michelle Robinson, was born and raised in the South Side section of Chicago. She is a double Ivy League graduate, first from Princeton University in 1985, and then Harvard Law School in 1988. Leading up to the campaign and the actual election the former lawyer, Michelle Obama, was the vice president of the University of Chicago’s Hospital, responsible for “a lot of diplomacy between the hospital, which wanted to cut back on uninsured emergency-room patients, and the largely African-American community, which wanted the hospital to work harder to provide health care to low-income residents,” said Obama in an article from USA Today. Financial documents state that Michelle made about $300,000 a year working as the VP to Chicago’s Hospital. What does a woman with her high intelligence, experience, and education get paid to be our first lady? Well, nothing. “While the position carries no official duties, the president’s spouse has long been expected to serve as a highly visible goodwill ambassador for the nation, performing a wide range of ceremonial and quasi-diplomat,” said Andie Coller from Yahoo! News.

The job and expectations of the first lady were drafted at a time when woman’s rights were on the very far back burner. “It is really very old-fashioned, right down to the title itself,” Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson explained to Coller. The first first lady was Martha Washington, wife of President George Washington, however, the title “first lady” wasn’t actually used until the 1870s. “first lady” was first used to describe Lucy Hayes, wife of  President Rutherford B. Hayes. The term “first lady” was thrown into regular usage when a play about Dolley Madison was produced in 1911, entitled The First Lady in the Land.

Why has there never been any type of execution to pay the first lady for her duties? Well, every first lady has approached the job differently, each drawing from her own experiences and expertise. Some first ladies were knowledgeable in music, art, and fashion, while others were strong in business, law, politics, and foreign affairs. The role of the first lady in the administration ranged from person to person, some like Margaret Taylor and Mamie Eisenhower put forward minimum participation, while others like Abigail Fillmore, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton worked right along side their husbands, and made a social impact of their own. “There are many cases where the first lady becomes a diplomat. Where the president can’t go, they may go and represent the United States at major events around the world,” said Janette Kenner Muir in Coller’s Yahoo! News article. In addition, first ladies’ responsibilities range. Besides being a support system for the president and their children, they organize social events, entertain officials, create education campaigns, direct policies, and sit in on cabinet meetings. Therefore, in a time where there is greater unity between people, the first lady isn’t treated as an equal for her role as the president’s counterpart. Should the first lady be paid an equal salary to the president? No, of course not. We elect the president, not his wife. However, at a time like today where we almost had our first female vice president and even possibly our first female president, the first lady working for free seems rather stagnant. As the twenty-first century continues to unfold, perhaps change will come to the role and value of the first lady too.