The Role of First Lady of the US
The role of the first lady in the American political system is one with a long and evolving history. Through history, the first lady has been seen mostly as the symbolic figure entrusted
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with welcoming people to the white house. The first lady’s first and paramount duty has been to welcome diplomats or guests to the Whitehouse, of president's actual home, and ensure they
were comfortable and well looked after. With time however many first ladies have taken on
much more substantial duties that have developed and supplemented the current role of the first
lady. To follow this paper will examine the historical evolution of the first lady and what the
sm ar current role of the first lady is understood as today.
Perhaps the most thorough documentation of the first ladies evolving duties and roles can
be found in the book: Frist Ladies and the Fourth Estate by Lisa Burns (Burns, 2008). The book
cites four distinct phases that the author feels the first lady has passed through. The first phase
Burns cites is the role of the first lady as a public woman. This era is really signified by the increasing presence of the United States on the international stage. Following WWI the president of the United States, at the time Woodrow Wilson, was for the first time in history looked at as the dominant political figure in the world. Thus the first lady began to be seen with much more prestige than in the past. For the first time the first lady was seen in line with queens and other women of high distinction throughout the world. When Wilson attended events like the treaty of
Versailles his wife Edith was by his side (Mark, 1978). Events like this were world renowned,
Last Name 2 and the first lady was given commensurate respect as the wife of, perhaps, the most important man in the world. As the United States quickly grew into the most powerful economy in the world, the role of both the president and first lady became much more important.
The next major phase that Burns cites is the first lady as a political celebrity. This era was embodied by Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, who became a celebrity as first lady to John F.
Kennedy. Their marriage was viewed with all the awe and wonder of any celebrity marriage. It
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was also highly scrutinized as rumors of affairs began to circle. The first lady was suddenly looked at as a figure to gossip about. Jaqueline suddenly found herself in a similar part as played
by many famous celebrities in American culture. Other first ladies in this period also impressed
similar images upon the American public and similarly became conversation pieces in day to day
sm ar focus of public debate and scrutiny.
life. This began the era where the first lady was no longer just a passive quite figure but rather a
The next phase cited by Burns is that of the first lady as a political activist. This was in
no doubt somewhat an outgrowth of the era. Following the turmoil of the 1960s it was no longer
viewed as acceptable for public figures to not have an opinion with regards to important topics.
No one was safe from this scrutiny including the first lady. The person that exemplified this more than anyone else was Betty Ford; wife of President Gerald Ford, Betty was political activist and spoke out strongly for causes such as woman’s rights. Thus really began a new era; one where the first lady didn’t just have a symbolic role but the real power. It was even questioned at times that perhaps Betty had more political power than her husband. This perception, though likely not true, was unprecedented in the history of first ladies.
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The final phase that Burns points out is the first lady as a political interloper. This is no doubt represented by first lady Hillary Clinton in her marriage to President Bill Clinton. The presidency was mired in intrigue as Bill…