I watched Ann Romney give her speech to the delegates at the Republican convention last evening and I was not impressed. Mrs Romney reminded me of all of the confident, pretty blondes with small waists and lipsticked smiles whom, as a high school 'square', I watched from afar, covering envy with disdain. Her acceptance of the adulation of the crowd seemed smug, her choice of topic ('Love'!) inane and her praise of her husband shallow in the extreme. Some of her comments (the noise of five boys on a rainy day as hardship, for example) really annoyed me. I found myself muttering that it must have been the nanny's day off. (As a young mother, I worked from home with two rug rats under my feet and rate myself as a connoisseur of noisy kids.) On the other hand, I felt for the woman, forced by other's expectations to expose herself in, to me, a most unnecessary way. And her chewed lipstick was certainly evidence of very understandable nervousness.
The under-trained social anthropologist in me has always been fascinated by the USA's First Lady cult. I was too young to pay much attention to Maimi Eisenhower but felt the full force of the Jackie (Jaquie?) Kennedy adulation. Soon after her husband's election, many of my contemporaries started to try quite hard to look like Mrs Kennedy and some of them to try to emulate her flair for decorating and entertaining. Her demeanour at her husband's death and funeral made her almost a holy icon to many Americans and her topple from the pedestal when she married Onaissis was fascinating to watch. The whole drama was played out in the media and captivated me to such an extent that I have been a First Lady watcher ever since.
There is a row of books on my shelves that I have collected off and on for years: autobiography - Clinton and Bush, are the latest; memoirs - including J B West's Upstairs atthe White House; biography and analysis like Margaret Truman's First Ladies and The Obamas by Jodi Kantor; all of these and more share a bookcase of similar reading on women's lives, from Elizabeth II to L M Montgomery. The books document the changes in women's lives from the late 19th century through to our present so-called post-women's-lib days.
The evolution of the First Lady is one of the more dramatic threads in the tapestry. I believe that no one much knew or cared what Bess Truman was up to when she retired many evenings with Harry and his briefing notes to a private room. But everyone had an opinion on Hillary Clinton's 'two for the price of one' efforts to untangle the medical insurance mess, even though everyone also had an opinion on her hair and whether or not she should have left Bill after the Lewinsky affair.
This fascination with First Lady clothes and style has moved from the adulation of the Kennedy years through exasperation with Barbara Bush's perceived insouciance and horrified comment on Nancy Reagan's face sculpture to include Michelle Obama's dilemma - should she appear to be a model of sophisticated (and expensive) black womanhood or signal lack of being impressed with herself by wearing inexpensive off-the-rack garments. It appears to me that the poor woman is bound to lose no matter which way she plays it.
The Americans seem to me to be as deeply conflicted about what they expect of women as they are about what type of state they want. A huge number of American women are working outside the home to keep their families afloat but the ideal American woman seems to remain a mom with a station wagon who drives the kids to soccer and (still) bakes apple pies. Norman Rockwell women in yoga pants and (sometimes) $500.00 sneakers. At the same time as Mrs Kennedy was being almost worshipped for her looks and style she was being castigated for how much money she spent and how little time she spent at the White House. And in 2012 the criticisms sound a lot like they did in 1962. The Michelle sneaker drama. The Ann Romney 'never worked outside the home' comment.
Why are these poor women being subjected to this exquisitely detailed scrutiny and commentary? I have never been able to come up with a completely satisfactory explanation myself and I am not convinced by some of the analysis of the whole phenomenon. Part of it is, certainly, the pressure put on candidates for public office to reveal and to be validated by their personal lives. There seems to be almost a consensus on the rather stultifying values that politicians are expected to follow. The British royal family gets a similar treatment, but there is a profound difference in that they are only there to be symbols of government, not to govern. Why so many people seized on Bill Clinton's indiscretions as a way to discredit his ability is beyond me. Was all the drama simply a chance for one side of the 'what kind of state do we want' advocates to savage the other one? Or was it really a belief that personal sexual stupidity is a mortal sin? If so, our choice of politicians is more than somewhat limited.
One of the things I have watched increase rapidly over my adult lifetime is the cult of celebrity watching. Although malicious gossip has always been with us, the tabloid type seems to be more and more free with speculation, mostly without a grain of truth, about people whose careers - political, entertainment and socialite - put them in the public eye. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to believe what is written. There are also people who validate themselves by putting their lives out in public, courting people's interest. Politicians, I guess, have to do this to feed the public appetite. But, I very much wish that all of the people who run for political office could and would quit making political capital out of their families.
I am glad I live in Canada where the wife of our Prime Minister can get out and ride her motorcycle from time to time. Although we are not free of prurient curiosity (Margaret Trudeau anyone?), we do not do the First Lady icon thing - one good reason to remain a monarchy, in my mind. On the other hand, when Michelle Obama is marched up onto the stage to give her speech, I am going to be right there watching her. And when she writes her memoir, I am buying it.
So, what does that make me? Part of the problem, I guess.
My Jackie Kennedy phase - 1963. The gloves were amazingly annoying. As was the hairspray.