Posted by: caseymhughes | November 3, 2016

First Ladies and Ambition

The upcoming 2016 presidential election has led to the media publicizing the candidates and their spouses. Specifically, there has been a lot of negative publicity surrounding Donald Trump’s wife, Melania Trump. I saw this negativity start to develop around her (though admittedly, I am not always on top of the campaign news) when she gave a speech in support of her husband that was allegedly plagiarized from a speech by Michelle Obama. Since Melania Trump’s speech the negativity towards her in the press has only increased.

While doing research on the election, I was surprised to come across an article that discussed Hillary Clinton’s lack of popularity when Bill Clinton was running for president in 1992. Apparently, people at the time were uncomfortable with a First Lady who was just as educated and nearly as qualified for president as her husband. Early into Bill Clinton’s presidency, Hillary was put in charge of a National Health Care Task Force which ended up being an unsuccessful venture. She received a lot of bad press for it in the 1990s. This trend of First Ladies being negatively portrayed by the media still continues today because the American public seems to have an aversion to First Ladies stepping out of their prescribed and strictly defined roles.

Melania Trump and Hillary Clinton (in 1992) seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, with the media portraying Melania as the ditzy trophy wife and Hilary as over-educated and power hungry.  It seems to me that these dichotomous representations are indicative of the double bind that women face. Like we discussed when learning about the double bind, women have a more narrow field of acceptable behavior when in leadership roles and in the public eye.

To expand this analysis, I think another concept that is at play here is ambition. We definitely want a beautiful First Lady. We want a First Lady that is a model of poise and motherly perfection. Do we want a First Lady who is smart? Debatable, but for argument’s sake, yes. We draw the line however, at a First Lady with ambition. One of Melania’s detriments in the public eye is her apparent lack of competence. After all, if she can’t even write a speech of her own, what can she do? Hillary was more than competent, and that’s why people disliked her. She tried to achieve more and have more power than any First Lady before her, and ended up being highly criticized for it. As far as I know, no First Lady since has had a political position while in the White House or has in any way extended beyond the accepted involvement of a traditional First Lady.

So, what are the implications of this analysis? How would this view of ambition impact a First Gentleman? How much does a female restriction on ambition apply to women who are actually running for office? What are some other examples of times society has balked at women with ambition?



  1. Maybe the ambitions of a first lady are negative because others will see that they can easily influence the president, but the media is simply able to use their power to sway the public in one way or another. Since society is more comfortable with allowing men to display ambition I think a First Gentleman would likely not be ridiculed for possessing ambition. Likely, the public would consider the First Gentleman positively for displaying an interest in the well being of the country. As far as a woman having the ambition to gain the oval office will likely be seen in the woman approval rating while in office. Since no woman has ever made it this far in an election as the primary candidate, we only know that the media has play a large role in downplaying the qualifications of women as candidates for president. I think that most people in society will have a harsher view for a female president’s decisions, including other women’s view. And this will ultimately lead to lower approval ratings, and could possibly disqualify the woman from a second term as president.

  2. I think you post is so true, and this is the epitomy of the double bind. Regardless of political views, if Hillary Clinton gets elected President, it will be interesting to see how our society reacts to a First Man. Additionally, if this were to happen, the First Man would have been a former United State President. My initial though to this is pure curiosity of the dynamic that would take place between Bill and Hillary, like if Bill will try and sway her decisions because he has “already been there”. These are just thoughts than ran through my mind when reading this, but overall everything you said was complete correct and a sad representation of our country not being able to make up our mind.

  3. It comes back to women either being the “bitch or the ditz”. It seems like this is a common theme that the description of women come back to. You are either a hardass who works hard to get things accomplished and you are labeled as a bitch (in this case, Hilary). Or you are a woman who knows nothing and when she opens her mouth nothing educated comes out (I’m not saying that she is like that. I am saying this is how she is portrayed) (in this case, Donald Trump’s wife). There is no middle ground and women are always caught in this.

    On another point you made- I think that Michelle Obama is a fantastic example of a First Lady that goes a little against what you were talking about. While she doesn’t have a political career, she has done SO much while First Lady. She is very educated and informed when she speaks. She is a mother. She started her own initiatives during her time as First Lady, and so much more.

  4. I definitely like that you pointed out the “bitch” and “ditz” dichotomy that has surrounded Melania and Hillary. I also think the expectations that are placed on the first lady are incredibly traditional and trace back to the idea of “Republican Motherhood” which emerged during colonial/revolutionary war times. Women are expected to raise good, patriotic sons. That his her role as an American. Similarly, the first lady is expected to be the mother of the nation. Focus on children’s issues, be a model of morality, and be ascetically pleasing and “pure.” It certainly is a lot of expectations and much of the negativity Clinton receives stems from her divergence from that role. More than anything I am excited to see (if the election falls this way) how Bill Clinton takes up his role as First Gentleman. Will he focus on children’s issues as well? What initiatives will seem appropriate? I feel as though he will be expected to take on a “protective father” role. Regardless, it will call into question many of our gender norms.

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