Dumpster or Sawhorse?

If we learned one thing from Ann Romney during the Republican National Convention and Michelle Obama last night, it is that their husbands really have a thing for strange furniture.  Mrs. Romney, seeking to humanize her husband, spoke fondly of their first desk as a door propped up by two sawhorses.  In a similar vein, Mrs. Obama waxed eloquent about young President Obama’s most prized possession–a coffee table he found in a dumpster.

Both women were tasked with offering glowing panegyrics to their spouses, and both accomplished their feat.  Michelle did a really excellent job last night, seeming relaxed and overwhelmingly positive–even when sharp issues were raised.  At once political and personal, there did not seem to be anything harsh or mean-spirited about her presentation.

I heard a commentator afterward say that she is the most popular women in America…and after hearing her last night I’d have to say “advantage Obama” here in the First Lady speechifying.What was interesting about her address was that she seemed, at some level, to subsume herself in order to “seal the deal” with Americans about her husband.  For a woman I’ve always thought of as very independent and a model of a empowered professional working woman, she seemed rather…domestic.

It is always interesting to think about the place of the First Lady in the American social construct.  Though the days of the stay-at-home mom are receding in our culture, the presidential couple–indeed, all presidential couples–seem to have conspired in this pattern.  To my knowledge, no presidential spouse in history has continued in her own career while her husband has served as president.  This is certainly not to say that they’ve done nothing.  Far from it.  Many have been quite engaged with the important issues of their day and some have even been involved in issues of governance.  But on the matter of a traditional job, everyone seems to adhere to the pleasant fiction of the “traditional American household.”

Can a First Lady work a separate, full-time job?  Certainly, if she wants.  Is it acceptable for her not to?  Absolutely.  Is forgoing a career an act of sacrifice for the country a presidential spouse must make?  Perhaps.  And, finally, will the election of Hillary or another qualified female candidate turn the whole discussion of presidential spouses on its head?  Absolutely.  Your thoughts?




4 comments on “Dumpster or Sawhorse?

  1. wcosnett says:

    Here are my thoughts.

    I had never thought about this before, I think I always assumed that the role/position had enough of it’s own responsibilities as host and diplomat. James Buchanen had no wife, and brought his niece to fill the role. When I toured his home recently I was informed that it was with her that the term “first lady” came into popular use because for the first time the person in that role wasn’t “Mrs. president’s last name”. So it does seem that there are specific responsibilities involved in the role.

    I also note that first ladies have often taken advantage of the opportunity that their public position affords to engage in causes that they feel strongly about. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No”, Hilary Clinton’s work on health care, and Michelle Obama’s push for healthier eating. I could see myself, put in a similar situation, thinking that a job will always be there, but I have a unique 4 year, possibly 8 year opportunity to do some significant work in a cause I believe in, and taking that opportunity.

    Finally, reading your blog I began to think about what it would mean for a presidential spouse to work a job. Commuting to and from the White House every day through security, taking secret service with you to the office, having to report changes in your schedule when meetings come up, trying to get time off for diplomatic trips and White House functions, plus all of the distractions that would come with trying to have normal working atmosphere when that level of celebrity is attached to you.

    I think at the end of the day, when opportunities come for one member of a couple even the most equality minded look at that opportunity and decide what is best. The wife gets offered a job at a prestigious law firm in California? Maybe the husband will leave his mid level accounting job and move out there to support her. The husband gets elected president? Maybe the spouse takes some time off to help her husband run a country.

    Side note – I re-read briefly and noticed you mentioned Hilary, I think that’s an interesting example where, after Clinton’s presidency, he has seemed to taken a supportive role for his wife in her political career.

    • Will,

      Thanks for taking the time to give your thoughts here. And…nice historical info!

      Your thoughts about a married couple choosing the best opportunity make sense, and I think that was what I was hinting at when I offered the possibility that the presidential spouse might sacrifice (at least for the time being).


  2. Anna says:

    This speech was both a firm up the base speech and an appeal to “family values” women. I heard a lot of why women who think of their first vocation as “mother” should support Obama. The message was clear: Obama does what he does because of his values, which are about making the world better his children and your children.

    • Anna: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. Still, I thought, tonally it was a little different from how I normally understand Michelle Obama. But, strategically, it all certainly makes sense.

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