Considering the first lady’s role, her refusal to serve is unsurprising
Melania Trump’s seemingly disinterested attitude at public functions, combined with her initial refusal to move into the White House, has spawned the ‘Sad Melania’ meme and numerous articles questioning her decision to be an ‘absent’ first lady. The tone of these articles, and public discussion surrounding Melania, is overwhelmingly one of shock and disdain; Melania isn’t acting as a first lady should, and it’s yet another sign of the Trump family’s ineptitude. However, the real question created by this furor is not whether Melania will be able to take on the role, or whether the Trump administration will adapt to the norms of the oft-discussed ‘establishment,’ it’s why any person acting out of rational self-interest would want to take on the role of first lady.
Though Ladybird Johnson revolutionized the role by setting the precedent of the first lady promoting a pet cause, the duties of the role remain remarkably limited, especially considering the education and talents of recent first ladies. While the role is limited to specific and somewhat antiquated duties, such as being a host of official events and publicly supporting the president in his decisions, it is demanding within these narrow categories. According to Lauren A. Wright of the non-partisan White House Transition Project, the total number of the first lady’s public remarks has exceeded that of the corresponding vice presidents’ remarks in the past three administrations. The first lady is simultaneously relegated to managing event details and judged stringently for her ability to execute them perfectly.
Despite this, she is not paid. Although the president makes enough for the both of them, with a salary of $400,000 a year, the first lady receives no salary and, by tradition, gives up her outside job. Though the expectation that the first lady not work outside the White House has been questioned in recent years, notably by Laura Bush in a 2014 interview with C-Span, it still remains a powerful precedent. Additionally, the logistical barriers of both the time commitment required for the first lady to fulfill her traditional duties and the effort and expense involved with properly securing her workplace make it a difficult tradition to change.
Had Bill Clinton become the ‘first spouse,’ there would have been more of a chance to revise the role; Would Americans really expect Bill Clinton to spend his time declaiming on his suits, presiding over the home and garden, and choosing flowers for the state dinner, all while living off Hillary’s income? By the same token, though, it is as absurd for Michelle Obama—a Princeton and Harvard graduate with a successful career in law, government, and executive administration—to leave her vice presidency at the University of Chicago hospitals for an unpaid position as an events planner.
Nonetheless, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the activities the first lady traditionally engages in; rather, it’s that she’s expected, regardless of her individual talents and inclinations, to take on these specific roles. Though the president has a wide range of policies to pursue and can operate in whatever way he considers expedient, the first lady is drafted into her position merely because she is his wife. Some first ladies, comfortable with the presidential lifestyle but not the confines of the first lady’s role, have attempted to tailor the role to their abilities. In a relatively recent example, Hillary Clinton sought to take on a policy-focused role as first lady, but faced considerable political opposition and personal criticism from the public and media for having too much power. Other first ladies disinterested in the traditional role have tried an opposite approach, similar to Melania’s, of disengaging from the White House. Betty Truman reportedly spent most of her time in Missouri, and Jackie Kennedy frequently returned to Virginia.
Although Melania Trump’s refusal to serve seems self-interested, it is important to ask what kind of obligation Melania, or any first lady, has to public service and duty. Ideally, the president and first lady would have discussed and mutually agreed that the presidential lifestyle will work for them. Ideally, the first lady would be as interested in serving through her more limited duties as the president is through his. Considering President Trump’s general bluster and disregard for women’s choices, however, and Melania’s stated preference for her luxurious Manhattan lifestyle over the duties of a first lady, it seems unlikely that she is truly onboard with President Trump. Faced with an unpaid position she likely didn’t want and can’t quit except through death or divorce, it is hard to fault Melania for trying to hold on to her version of everyday life.