Competing Conceptions of the First Ladyship: Public Responses to Betty Ford's 60 Minutes Interview.

Author:BORRELLI, MARYANNE
Position:Statistical Data Included
 
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In recent decades, we have witnessed the rise of a women's rights movement and its contested development into a feminist movement. We have also experienced a conservative backlash, which has reinvigorated traditionalist conceptions of women as best suited to the private sphere. The first ladies have found themselves in the midst of these debates, their roles and responsibilities subjected to constant comment. Feminists argue that the first lady should manifest independence and individuality, acting on her personal convictions to achieve her own career goals. Meanwhile, more traditional thinkers maintain that the first lady should conform to historical standards of respectability in appearance and conduct (Burrell 1997, 5). This vibrant disagreement might seem to grant a first lady the latitude to select the role(s) that she will perform. The lack of generally shared criteria for evaluating her actions could give the first lady the freedom to set her own priorities and standards. But is this an accurate expectation? Does a first lady actually have a significant degree of latitude and freedom in defining her roles and responsibilities?

These are important questions. First ladies have been essential to the working of the presidency. Numerous memoirs and biographies indicate that these women have exercised various kinds of political influence. In their survey of the first ladies, Karen O'Connor, Bernadette Nye, and Laura van Assendelft (1996) found that at least thirty-one have discussed politics with the president, twenty-six have been confidants or advisers to the president ("screening correspondence, highlighting news articles, and editing speeches"), and fourteen have "influenced" the appointment process (p. 846). How a first lady performs her role(s), therefore, affects the substantive content of White House decision making.

The first lady's influence has also been felt outside the East and West Wings. Each first lady's presentation of herself and of her relationship with the president has routinely been magnified into a commentary on U.S. womanhood (Muir and Benitez 1996; Templin 1999). As a result, first ladies have often become lightning rods for societal debates about women's gender roles. This was much in evidence throughout the Clinton administration, during which the decisions and actions of the first lady were routinely evaluated (Burrell 1997). Yet, these assessments were not unique to the tenure of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Time and again, first ladies have "engendered a national discussion about the power and influence of women, especially political wives, on the political life of the nation" (Burrell 1997, 3).

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the presidential and the gender roles of the first lady can be neatly distinguished. Both the presidency and gender are political institutions, which is to say that both are engaged in the authoritative allocation of values (Easton 1953). Furthermore, the presidency is highly gendered; Clinton Rossiter (1960, 5) noted that

The framers of the Constitution took a momentous step when they fused the dignity of a king and the power of a prime minister in one elective office. And, if they did nothing else, they gave us a "father image" that should satisfy even the most demanding political Freudians. In no less measure are the political behaviors of the first lady reflective of American traditions of gender and power. Yet, the gendered character of the first ladyship and its association with public opinion have seldom been systematically analyzed.

This article seeks to understand how the public perceives the first lady, focusing on the intersection of gender and presidential power in its assessments. It may be that ongoing changes in women's societal circumstances allow the first lady greater flexibility and latitude in choosing between her roles. Alternatively, the debates generated by the women's movement may constrain the first lady, obliging her to emphasize her more traditional private sphere roles and to limit her public sphere activism.

Defining the First Ladyship

The first ladyship was not created by any single formal actor, institution, or process. It is, primarily, a cultural tradition that evolved over time and has gradually been institutionalized within the government (Burrell 1997, 140; Watson 1997). Office space, one indicator of this institutionalization, was granted to the first lady following the 1901 renovations to the White House.(1) In 1978, the White House Personnel Authorization Act included the office of the first lady in its provisions for White House staff:

Assistance and services ... are authorized to be provided to the spouse of the president in connection with assistance provided by such spouse to the president in discharge of the president's duties and responsibilities. (PL 95-570, [sections] 105[e]) The phrasing of the authorization is deliberately gender-neutral. However, the president's spouse has-to date-always been a wife. Arguably, this highly gendered role exercises a definitive influence on each first lady's decision making about how she will (and will not) conduct herself while in office.

Surveying the literature on first ladies and reviewing his own research, Robert P. Watson (2000, 72-93) identified "eleven fundamental duties" that are associated with the first ladyship. These are service as a wife and mother, as a public figure and celebrity, as the nation's social hostess, as the symbol of American womanhood, as the White House manager and preservationist, as a campaigner, as a social and political advocate, as a presidential spokesperson, as a presidential and political party booster, as a diplomat, and as a political and presidential partner. Each of these tasks is subject to interpretation by each first lady. They may be combined in almost infinite patterns of private sphere traditionalism and public sphere activism. Acknowledging this truth, this analysis simplifies matters slightly by selecting two roles-which are constellations of the eleven duties listed above--that scholars and analysts have generally assigned to the first lady. One role is that of "political wife" and the other is that of "wife," As will be seen, these conceptualizations involve quite distinct understandings of gender and presidential power, each of which relates to the first lady's latitude in determining her contribution to the presidency.

As more than one commentator has noted, political wives are often valuable resources, especially when their husbands are seeking elected office. Political wives provide personal support and encouragement in a competitive and confrontational profession. They enhance their husbands' image in a mass media culture wherein name recognition can determine electoral outcomes. They are campaign surrogates, preserving the candidates' energy and time. They raise the children and preside over the household, leaving their husbands to focus on their own political careers (Bostdorff 1998, 199). Political wives who meet these performance standards have been termed "satellites" because their efforts reflect so well on their husbands and because their lives revolve around their husbands' careers (Lang 1978, 148; Winfield 1988, 334). These women succeed by subordinating their individuality and by presenting themselves within the framework of a helpmeet/homemaker identity. Notwithstanding the significance of their contributions, there is little latitude and less discretion in the performance of a satellite's roles (see Fraser 1983, 1989).

Scholars generally concur that the first lady's roles are similar to those assumed by other political wives. However, her circumstances as the first lady effect a qualitative change in her responsibilities. A political wife is expected to provide her husband with personal support and encouragement; the president's wife may be the president's protector. A political wife is expected to enhance her husband's image; a president's wife is a public symbol. A political wife is often a campaign surrogate; a first lady may be the president's political partner. And while a political wife raises a family, the first lady is elevated to serving as the nation's hostess (Bostdorff 1998, 200). The qualitative difference is sufficiently notable that the first lady may be properly identified as the "first political wife." The responsibilities associated with this role have repeatedly served as the standards by which first ladies' contributions to the polity have been evaluated (see Diller and Robertson 1997; Watson 1997, 1999). Nonetheless, the role of first political wife should be recognized as challenging many enduring conceptions of presidential leadership and power.

Georgia Duerst-Lahti (1997, 21-23) has observed that descriptions of the president as "the chief of all chiefs" emphasize the power and authority of the office. As such, the presidential office institutionalizes traditionally masculine conceptions of power. Similarly, the first ladyship institutionalizes a traditionally feminine conception of power, to the extent that it reflects male power and reinforces the illusion of male autonomy (see Butler 1990, 45-46). By the same reasoning, to the extent that the first lady functions publicly as a support for the president, she destroys illusions of executive autonomy and masculine strength. Yet, such support is one of the distinguishing features of the first political wife. As the president's protector and political partner, she testifies to the president's dependence on others. As a public symbol and as the nation's hostess, she may be recognized as a distinct political actor. In these ways, the first lady as first political wife blurs the traditional boundaries of men's power and women's influence. The likely result is public resistance and criticism, given the endurance and consequent strength of traditional conceptions of masculinity and presidential power. This...

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