First Ladies in Waiting

(Flickr/Gage Skidmore, Obama for America)

Sure, it's fun to hate her. She's a dance mom to a high-priced horse. She crowed about her “real marriage” to Mitt during her RNC speech, which would count as a homophobic dog whistle if it weren’t loud enough for everyone to hear. She wears thousand-dollar t-shirts and still manages to dress like a modern-day June Cleaver. And this Fall she's taken to saying bafflingly tone-deaf things to reporters, like that she has “concern” for her husband’s “mental well-being” should he actually have to serve as president.

But all snark aside, why should we care about Ann Romney? The answers may seem obvious: If her husband is elected, she'll surely have the ear of the President of the United States in ways most cabinet members only dream of. She provides a window into a strange and often inscrutable candidate. And of course, the campaign has designated her a surrogate, so who are we to argue?

But none of these answers stand up to scrutiny. Governors and Senators often have wives who surely influence them in myriad ways. As for giving us insight into the candidate, what exactly do we learn from Ann Romney about Mitt, except that he seems capable of human emotion toward her, and that neither one of them is in possession of a particularly fine-tuned political ear? 

It’s true that the campaign has been pushing her as a surrogate, even writing confidential memos about how best to deploy her. The same is true of Michelle Obama, who’s been a popular and effective spokesperson for her husband since the 2008 campaign. I’m far from immune to her charms. Whether she’s doing the dougie with schoolchildren, digging in the White Hourse garden, or giving hilarious side-eye to her daughters during the president’s speech at the DNC, I’m almost always happier for a bit of our First Lady. And I’m sure that’s the idea. If you like someone’s spouse or partner, don’t you like them a little better, too? First Ladies have become the hammer in presidential campaigns’ likability toolbox.  

But likeability itself is completely out-of-control as a political factor. I’d much rather have a president who can manage Hillary’s now-cliché 3 a.m. phone call than one who’s fun to have a beer with. The rise of likability as a core metric is inexorably tied to the rise of American anti-intellectualism. And the rise of First Ladies as emissaries of likability brings with it a healthy dose of retro sexism as well—sexism that has consequences even for those of us who’ll never even dream of redecorating the White House.

The wives of presidential candidates weren’t always such prominent campaigners. The (potential) First Lady convention address, for example, only dates back to Barbara Bush’s speech in 1992. That election was a watershed year for redefining the role of the potential president’s wife, in part because we’d never seen a potential First Lady like Hillary before. She was a rorschach test for a country still rearranging itself in the wake of the feminist second wave, and no one—not even the Clintons—understood which rules could be changed, and which were still third rails of gender performance. How could it not be confusing? Even in Arkansas, even in the ’80s, Hillary Clinton was able to practice law while her husband governed, a scenario that became so threatening when translated to a run for the White House it gave rise to the now-traditional First Lady Bake-Off.

The formula that’s developed since then requires a sort of advanced math: A First Lady candidate can be a certain amount “modern” as long as she’s at least as invested in performing traditional femininity.

The First Lady contest is the highest expression of our tumultuous relationship with American Womanhood itself.If this has the ring of the familiar, it's because the First Lady contest is the highest expression of our tumultuous relationship with American Womanhood itself. On Shonda Rhimes' Revenge-meets-West Wing show Scandal, First Lady Mellie is pregnant with what the networks are all obsessively calling "America's Baby.”  Here in the reality-TV smash we call presidential elections, all potential First Ladies (or in the case of Michelle, current) are auditioning for the role of America's Wife. She has to be smart, but not smarter than her husband. Pretty, but not too sexual. She should be politically savvy enough not to, say, publicly question her husband's mental fitness to serve, but not so political that voters think she'll influence her husband's decisions. (This is a ridiculous delusion. Of course she'll have influence. But as Hillary learned in that legendary election, when Bill began his campaign by saying voters would get “two for the price of one” and spent the rest of the campaign—and a lot of his presidency—trying to walk that offer back, admitting a candidate values his wife’s political opinion is tantamount to cutting off his balls on live television.) She has to be ambitious on behalf of the country, but limit her own personal ambitions to motherhood, hosting parties, and baking better cookies than the other First-Ladies-In-Waiting. 

It’s the Have It All trap on megadoses of estrogen. Of course it is. The Have It All trap is designed to keep women eating our own—and each others’—tails, allowing men, who aren’t ever expected to Have It All, to stay in power. And who’s a bigger threat to the ultimate seat of power than an unencumbered, genuinely feminist First Lady?

We needn’t worry about that with Ann Romney, who spent her precious primetime air at the RNC regaling us with the story of how Mitt wooed her at a high school dance, and telling women that the structural inequalities we face are both inevitable, and what make us awesome. The retro appeal of rich, white, preppy, matronly Ann leaves her free to go off-script and indulge in weird and angry outbursts, like the time she told conservative critics to “stop it” because “This is hard and ... it is time for all Americans to realize how significant this election is and how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt’s qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country.” Meanwhile, her approval ratings soar. We don’t have to wonder what would happen if Michelle Obama (a younger black woman who first met her husband as his boss) did anything similar: We’ve seen the attacks on her over much less since 2008. For better and worse, her performance at this year’s DNC, in which she—and the video package that introduced her—erased her professional achievements and proclaimed that  her “most important title is still ‘Mom-in-Chief’” is the both canniest thing she could have done, and, as many pointed out, strong and subversive in its own right. If the First Lady is America’s Wife, having a black woman as our ur-mom is already downright transformational. 

But whether we’re Team Michelle or Team Ann, playing the First Lady game gives it strength, which hurts the rest of us who have much less access to It All than either of them. It also continues to gender the presidency. How are we to take female candidates seriously when the only women we see headlining the Big Show are defanged by design? And what of the First Husband? If he’s too powerful, he risks upstaging his wife. But if he’s deferential, we’ll call him lady-names, and her a ball-buster. (Bill Clinton can hardly be a test-case for what a First Husband should be like. But it is intriguing to note the glee many on the left seemed to take in feminizing Marcus Bachman.) And what of leaders who’ve never married? Does the lack of a spouse render you unfit to lead? What of (gasp!) leaders who don’t identify as either male or female? It’s admittedly impossible to imagine them getting elected president in my lifetime. Perhaps it’s too obvious to belabor, but the Ken-and-Barbie rules cut off “non-traditional” candidates who might be able to envision a truly new path for the country.

We’re all human: Of course we’re going to be curious about the spouses of our most powerful politicians, and of course the campaigns are going to try to take advantage of our curiosity. But let’s try to recognize that strategy for what it is: an advantage that they’re taking from us. It’s too late to take it back this time, but there’s always 2016.

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