My daughter got a book about The First Ladies as a gift. Flipping through it, I felt disturbed by it. Before this, I had never given much thought to the position of First Lady, but juxtaposing it with my own daughter created a new context in which to rethink what First Lady means. My first thought was that I wouldn’t want my daughter aspiring to be a First Lady. I then asked: In this day and age, why should any title be forced on you just because of your husband’s job? One of my Facebook friends put it succinctly: “I hate that politicians and society always have to define women by their relationships as mothers, daughters & sisters, etc..” That is exactly it: When speaking of careers, we should not define anyone in relationship to their spouses; it’s irrelevant and inappropriate. It devalues and demeans who they are on their own merits.
Imagine if there was a title for the wife of a CEO. Say, “LCEO” for Lady of CEO. Imagine one day, your husband accepts a job as a CEO of Acme International, and his friends and colleagues start referring to you as “LCEO of Acme International”. Wouldn’t that be annoying? What if you have a career of your own? Say, you are trying hard to launch a career as a writer or an architect. One day suddenly, many people around you start introducing you to others: “Did you meet Jane? She is our LCEO.” I think the title “First Lady” is just as annoying and insulting as this. For most people, Bill Clinton becoming “First Husband” or “First Gentleman” sounds like a joke. The idea of “First Lady” should sound like a joke too.
One commenter on Facebook said the “FLOTUS” is more than just a “job”. Well, it’s true but this fact itself is a problem also. Being the president of the US indeed has a certain religious significance. In Japan, this aspect of a national leader is delegated to the emperor so that the prime minister can focus on more pragmatic issues. It is true: the reality is that we still need our political leader to be a religious leader to some degree. But we should realize the hypocrisy and the inappropriateness of our expectations, and stop expecting the wives of the presidents to act like ceremonial figureheads to satisfy our spiritual needs.
By forcing the title of “First Lady” we expect her to perform the traditional duties associated with that position. This is quite unfair, and sets a negative expectation for our young girls, that our society still expects women to perform in the shadows of their men, and it even glorifies such a position. The title is more like a curse (much like some members of the Japanese imperial family feel about their titles).
Don’t get me wrong: I do not think the First Ladies of the past deserve no credit. I think we should recognize and appreciate them for their own merits. We do not need the title to do so. Giving title and credit are not one and the same. Naming, labeling, and titling all have grave implications for how people come to see and expect the object. (Think of how the Republicans cleverly renamed inheritance tax to “death tax”.) We do not give a title to someone after achieving something great. We give it so that the person given the title would have to conform to the expectations associated with that title. Think of all the job titles. They are given before the first day starts. Titles are given to set expectations, not to give them credit for their great achievements. The social/cultural expectations are what we are constantly fighting against, whether it’s sexism, racism, or any other kind of prejudice.
Feminists often argue that behind every great man there is a great woman. In analyzing the history of great men, this is appropriate because only men were allowed to be the public faces of what were actually teamworks with their wives. Not recognizing women’s contributions is like giving all the credit to the singer and none to the songwriter. But now that women too can go out there and build their own public faces, we need to rethink that popular feminist argument; otherwise we run the risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we embrace and idealize this notion that behind every great man there’s a great woman, both men and women will continue to expect this hierarchical relationship, and see subservient women as virtuous women, and the men who have them as wives would be egotistically proud of these women. What was relevant in the past is not necessarily so now.
This article from 2004 on New York Times about Howard Dean’s wife reveals how much the general public still expects a good wife to be subservient to her husband. Some would obviously argue that this is precisely why we still need to recognize the fact that behind every great man there is a great woman. I’m sorry but NO. Dean’s wife, Dr. Judith Steinberg, is the great woman we should be admiring more than those who gave into the subservient positions, and we should be self-critical of our own expectations of how the wives of the president should behave. It is the public who is wrong; not Dr. Steinberg. By refusing to give into the unfair expectations of the public, I would argue that she contributed to gender equality more than she would have, had she given into the pressure. We cannot achieve meaningful social changes by giving into unfair expectations. Also, the credit should go to Howard Dean too for letting her pursue her own career, and not dragging her into his own ambitions. Not every true winner wins. Our goal should be to do the right thing, not win at any cost.
Does this mean I’m critical of Hillary Clinton? No, I respect her very much. In her case, I think she made the compromise for her own career. It was still unfair for the public to expect her to play the traditional role of First Lady. At first she tried to do what she wanted to do but faced too much resistance and caused too many controversies, so she went into a quiet mode and eventually accepted the role of First Lady that the public expected her to play. But in her case, her own career was politics also, and I believe there was some strategic benefit to accepting the role. The same holds true for Michelle Obama. Her own career as a lawyer is not entirely unrelated to her husband’s, and her experience as the First Lady could prove beneficial for her own career later. But this was not the case with Dr. Steinberg. She was a practicing physician, and that is what she wanted to do.
But even so, both Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama would have been better off if the position of FLOTUS did not exist. Even if Hillary preferred to work together with Bill, she could have chosen any of his cabinet positions. By having this outdated and inappropriate position, she was essentially tamed into being the proper wife of the president. The position of “First Lady” should be abolished.
Another argument I came across is that women should empower themselves through the power of their husbands because the society is not yet fair to women. That is, since the society is still unfair, women should take advantage of the power derived from the unfairness to fight the unfairness. It’s like saying, since our enemy has machine guns, let’s get some machine guns also to fight for peace. This attitude is hypocritical in many ways.
Those who advocate this as a legitimate position are being critical of the society for not living up to their standard yet they excuse themselves from the same standard. That is, they expect someone else to do the right thing but not themselves. They are saying, “Let’s win power at any cost and worry about doing the right thing later.” For this type of people, this “later” never comes, because they take for granted whatever power they already have now. They assume they are powerless and excuse themselves for doing anything for that reason. “Abuse of power comes as no surprise.”
They also perpetuate the sexist standards. If gaining power through their husbands is their strategy in life, they would need to marry men who are already powerful or have the most potential for becoming powerful. Given that our society is indeed sexist still, chauvinistic men are likely to be more powerful. Men like Howard Dean are not the winners in the eyes of these women who seek power through men. By choosing men based on their potential to be powerful, these women are rewarding chauvinistic men by marrying them. And men who are not chauvinistic would be encouraged to be chauvinistic. As a father, the idea of my daughter thinking of men in this manner is disturbing to me. I would rather be married to a woman who sees a potential in me for being her servant than a woman who sees me as a way for her to gain power. In the long run, I do not think that women who gain power through their men are going to have much resonance in arguing about gender equality, as compared to people like Gloria Steinem who did not resort to such a tactic.
Much of this type of expectation of power comes from Hollywood movies where lone hero saves the world. For those who expect this type of fantastic notion, nothing short of it is worth pursuing. We do not need to be powerful to do the right thing. Doing the best we can do is the only thing that matters. We don’t need to seek power to fight unfairness. Each one of us just needs to contribute one clean step towards gender equality. We can stop expecting others to conform to unfair roles like “First Lady” and stop perpetuating sexist conventions and traditions. The power to do so is within us all.
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