Rolled oats propelled Hillary Clinton to victory in 1992. They were the game-changing ingredient in her recipe for chocolate chip cookies, which she submitted to Family Circle magazine in a bake-off against then-incumbent first lady Barbara Bush.
The bake-off was an attempt to appeal to stay at home moms following her controversial response to California governor Jerry Brown’s criticism that she owed her professional success to her husband, Bill. “I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had tea,” she told a reporter in a soundbite that was reported around the world. “But what I decided to do was fulfill my profession.” Many women responded with outrage, and perhaps that’s why, shortly thereafter, Clinton participated in the traditional Family Circle first lady bake-off. And won.
Clinton’s cookies are good: my best friend’s mom used to make them for her school lunches. No doubt Hillary could have won any number of bake-offs with her recipe, but politics have paid off far more for her: in less than a year, she may be the first female president of the United States. But if that happens, she won’t be the only one breaking a gender barrier: her husband Bill will step into a role no man has ever held before. So what kind of first lady will Bill Clinton be? (Besides, of course, a manly one).
The role of first lady is officially unofficial: there’s no constitutional requirement that the president have a partner, and the person occupying the role has never received a salary. The job has evolved over the years. In the 18th and 19th century, the first lady was primarily expected to be a lovely and capable hostess, just like any wife of a distinguished, wealthy American man. These women were expected to bake cookies, host teas, select china patterns, manage household staff and smile graciously at fancy dinners. In the twentieth century, however, things began to shift, and some first ladies began to dig in to more substantial issues than menus and flower arrangements.
Different women leveraged the position in different ways: some argue that Lady Bird Johnson was the first to modernize the job when she campaigned on behalf of her husband Lyndon B Johnson in the mid 60s, but others wielded significant political clout before her. Eleanor Roosevelt’s work as a writer, activist, public speaker and social reformer is perhaps most famous. But other notably hard-working first ladies include
Florence Harding, wife of Warren G, a passionate suffragette who edited all of her husband’s important speeches and pushed hard to influence his appointments.
But when Hillary Clinton moved into the White House in 1993, she was not granted the same flexibility. As the chair of the Task Force on National Health Care reform, she was slammed in the press for stepping beyond the reaches of her role, in spite of her clear qualifications to work on policy: the implication was that she was being unladylike. To many Americans, the revelations about her husband’s extramarital sexual proclivities confirmed their belief that Hillary was failing to fulfill the remit of the first lady: to be a pleasant and decorative hostess who represents a “traditional” and anachronistic family: a man in charge, a faithful and helpful woman by his side (even though a number of other presidents and First Ladies have also had notable affairs). Indeed, Clinton blamed the affair in part on herself for failing as a wife.
Michelle Obama – also a highly-qualified lawyer, and an expert in health care – has, by contrast, taken a less policy-oriented approach to the role. She’s championed family-oriented causes like healthy eating , and kept her distance from Capitol Hill. (In this, she followed more closely the model set by her predecessor Laura Bush, who campaigned for literacy and rarely expressed an opinion.) But Obama has nevertheless been the subject of gendered and racist criticism: of her clothes, of her hair, for being “scary” , for giving Queen Elizabeth a hug and for needing to “drop a few pounds” . That’s a lot to take for a volunteer job.
Ultimately, the base state of the job of first lady is gendered, a model of wifeliness. The women who have given the role breadth and depth have done so by reimagining or extending the role of a wife – a role that only exists because of a relationship to a husband. What, then, will happen to this anachronistic role if it’s filled by man?
The idea of a former president championing America’s dental health, giving tours of White House Christmas decorations or pledging to “take care of the President” as Jacqueline Kennedy did , seems preposterous. It’s notable, but not surprising, that the male partners of female world leaders aren’t burdened with the same kind of responsibilities that women are. Though he’d be smashing the glass floor for men in America by becoming the first gentleman (or whatever they will call him), Bill Clinton would be far from the world’s first first man. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s husband, Joachim Sauer, has continued his work as a chemistry professor, although he does attend state occasions alongside her. Earlier, Margaret Thatcher’s husband, Denis Thatcher, was known for his total devotion to his wife, his remove from politics, and his expression of hard-right views in private. No one ever cared about what he wore.
The Clintons have alluded to some possible routes that Bill could take: in September, Hillary even said appointing him as her vice-president had crossed her mind. More recently, at the Democratic debate in South Carolina, she stated that he’d be one of her key advisors: “I’m going to ask for his ideas, I’m going ask for his advice, and I’m going to use him as a goodwill emissary to go around the country to find the best ideas we’ve got, because I do believe, as he said, everything that’s wrong with America has been solved somewhere in America,” she said. What he’ll be called in that role remains unclear: Bill himself has suggested Adam, after the Biblical first man.
American women are increasingly taking the breadwinning roles in their households, but is the model of the dominant wife and supportive husband one that we’re ready to find palatable in the White House? Since the conclusion of his presidency, much of his time has been taken up with his eponymous foundation, which is run out of an office in New York: it’s raised nearly $2bn. Would propriety and tradition really require him to step aside from his work during his wife’s term in office, as Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton gave up their jobs to move to Washington with their partners? In an America that had achieved gender equality, one might hope that this would happen. But that’s not an America in which we live. It seems unlikely that anyone is going to ask Bill Clinton for his best cookie recipe, and not just because he’s a vegan .