Jill Biden is making history as the first-ever first lady to keep her paid job.
In addition to her duties in the White House, she will continue to teach English at Northern Virginia Community College. The role of the first lady has been evolving since Martha Washington, and political scientist Lauren Wright focuses her work on this progression.
Historically, first ladies have faced the professional expectation that they will leave behind their day jobs. Eleanor Roosevelt taught at the Todhunter School for Girls while Franklin D. Roosevelt served as governor of New York, but she was forced to quit her teaching job when he was elected president.
Women’s status as professionals and role in the workforce has drastically changed over the years, Wright says. And first ladies have always pushed the boundaries of women’s status in society during their time in the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, defied boundaries despite FDR’s political concerns.
The widespread popularity of first ladies makes them a “tremendous asset” for White House communications, she says. Wright’s research shows that first ladies bear the burden of the majority of White House and presidential campaign communications among surrogates, she says.
“The White House has become dependent on that status and [first ladies] as these uniquely situated messengers who seem to be able to more easily relate to the public,” she says.
First ladies often focus on one cause, such as Nancy Reagan's “Just Say No” campaign fighting substance abuse or Laura Bush's advocacy for children's literacy.
People think of these projects as noncontroversial, Wright says, but the initiatives often frame a controversial presidential policy. Nancy Reagan’s campaign coincided with the Reagan administration’s harsh anti-drug policies, for example.
“The project — while they seem on the surface like they're strictly apolitical — tend to be very persuasive, in some cases, ways to reach the public and gain support for a broader, related presidential initiative,” she says.
First ladies like Hillary Clinton have taken a hands-on role in policy. She chaired a health care task force as first lady, and went on to serve as a senator, secretary of state and presidential nominee. And Edith Wilson helped run the country after Woodrow Wilson had a stroke in 1919.
FLOTUS always plays a role behind the scenes, Wright says, in ways such as Jill Biden recommending Amanda Gorman to read the inaugural poem. But modern administrations have figured out how to avoid the criticism that Clinton faced for serving as an “unappointed, unelected policymaker” despite the reforms she enacted as Arkansas’ first lady, Wright says.
“It's a very delicate balance between what the public deems acceptable in terms of gender at that point in time and what first ladies can do,” she says.
Melania Trump acted as a surrogate and made several prominent speeches during her time in the White House, but served a more background role than other recent first ladies like Michelle Obama. And at times it seemed like president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, fulfilled some of the roles traditionally performed by the first lady.
Melania Trump based her role on Jackie Kennedy, Wright says. She received media coverage for what she wore at public appearances but engaged less in public activities.
Wright counted the frequency of speeches among recent first ladies: Laura Bush made 42 major speeches in her first year in the White House, Michelle Obama made 74 and Melania Trump made eight.
Despite this drop in volume, Wright says her surveys reveal Melania Trump was a more effective communicator among independents and people outside the Republican Party compared to Ivanka Trump.
This segment aired on January 25, 2021.