The Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C. houses a special exhibit called “The First Ladies,” dedicated to the first ladies of the United States. That is to say, it’s dedicated to their china patterns, accessories and their wardrobes.
While the pattern of showcasing gowns and shoes would hold if Melania Trump became our next first lady, a change may affect this exhibit if Hilary Clinton becomes the next president. Would we even call Bill? First gentleman? First lad? First dude? What we should really be thinking about is calling him the First Spouse and changing the gender roles and gender dynamics of the first couple.
Changing the term to first spouse would modernize the role from being traditionally female to being more gender neutral. This would also have a direct impact on The First Ladies’ exhibit and thus should also feature a title upgrade, given that Bill Clinton’sinauguration suit could soon be on prominent display.
Even if somehow Hillary Clinton did not become our next president, we, as Americans, still need to change the conversation around gender roles and the dynamics between presidents and their spouses. The relationship dynamics of the First Couple needs to be seen as a partnership. The First Spouse should not be viewed as just a subservient support system. Rhetorical critic Dr. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell once wrote that First Ladies have traditionally been required to be “appropriately feminine” in order to enhance the masculine qualities of the president. This idea reinforces the notion that the First Spouse should only be seen as a tool for the president, rather than an individual person, capable of making legitimate contributions to our society.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Sara Angevine commented on the success of former First Spouses and her concern over how society might look at this role reversal. “I think that it’s going to write a new chapter. I don’t know if there is going to be clear guidelines and expectations. And, to be fair, the role of the First Lady has been transformed by every person that has held that office,” said Angevine, noting Eleanor Roosevelt’s critical role in crafting the United Nations (UN) declaration of human rights. “I’m scared that we’re going to overreact – oh, because a guy is now doing it [First Spouse], and he’s doing some policy positions, we’re going to say [Hillary’s] just the puppet because that’s just our gender schema — that’s how we will perceive it.”
This idea that Bill Clinton will actually be running things instead of Hillary is not new. Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University Kelly Dittmar’s 2015 article for Ms. Blog, a forum for Ms. Magazine, notes that role change can cause scrutiny. In the article titled “Presidential Spouses: A Conversation Worth Having … But Not at the Democratic Debate,” Dittmar wrote that “This realization gets to the heart of our curiosity about the role of our first-ever First Gentlemen, which is far less concerned with whether [Bill Clinton] will monitor the flower arrangements and much more concerned with the degree to which he will influence his wife’s professional decisions.”
Relationships, even that of the First Couple, should be a partnership. The role of the First Spouse shouldn’t be relegated to sit in the corner in order to make the other look good, nor should it be looked at as the power house for the president’s decisions. Many first spouses have made historical contributions to society, such as Eleanor Roosevelt’s UN deal, Michelle Obama’s Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, Betty Ford’s establishment of clinics to assist those with drug dependence, Rosalynn Carter’s mental health reform policies, and many others.
The seat of the First Spouse is about working with the president as a dynamic power couple, rather than working separately. The switch to a male as the First Spouse shouldn’t be any different. Bill Clinton isn’t there to tell Hillary Clinton what to do; he is there to help her change the country and work in tandem to make domestic and foreign reforms.
Obviously, “The First Ladies” exhibit will need to be updated. Ideally, it would more accurately reflect the contributions the First Spouses have made throughout history, perhaps with a shift in focus from clothing choices to their domestic policies. The exhibit should take a page from the National Women’s History Museum, which prominently features women’s history, contributions, struggles, and victories over time, rather than their evening wear. If done correctly, “The First Spouse” exhibit could actually be really interesting, full of policies, fun facts, and even their outfit choices as they become more diverse with each new spouse.
As published in USA Today on Wednesday, Nov. 2, Washington Bureau chief Susan Page wrote that if Hillary Clinton won the presidency, it would “expand the automatic definition of who has ‘the presidential look.’ This referenced Trump’s statement about Clinton not possessing the aforementioned look during the first presidential debate. This would also expand the definition for the First Spouse as well, focusing less on gender and more on how Bill Clinton can improve the country alongside Hillary Clinton, as her equal.
Perhaps the soon needed “First Spouse” exhibit will feature a variety of items, important contributions, and even more unique clothing choices. Professor Angevine suggests more flair and fun in options for First Spouses, saying that, “Maybe in the future, we won’t just have two options, we will have skorts, or kilts, or something more exciting, I think our creativity is limited by all these stereotypes.”