Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Following First Ladies

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.


  1. Well written and very interesting!

    Although I am not a Hilary Clinton fan, I was horrified by the way she was treated during the 2008 election. I feel like women are expected to be all things, but not to much of one extreme or the other. She was derided for getting tears in her eyes (too female) and equally derided for knocking back a shot of whiskey (too masculine). I think it was Rush Limbaugh who showed an unflattering photo of her and expressed "concern" over how she is aging, as if wrinkles and saggy neck skin have anything to do whatsoever with a person's ability to lead. I've noticed a tiny bit more focus on physical attributes during this election (Romney as an attractive man, Paul Ryan's fitness dedication, and we can't forget that Obama bathing suit photo), but not like the women get it.

    I recently read Meghan McCain's book and she got a lot of it too when she was on the campaign trail with her father. Her bleached blond hair made her look "like a stripper." She wore too much make up. She needed to ditch the leggings. On and on and on. It's infuriating.

    It all makes me very glad that I'm not married to a politician and forced to conform to someone else's ideal.

    1. Hillary got bad treatment throughout, Kayris, in my opinion. So do all the Presidential candidates, but they signed up for it. I suppose physical fitness and health (but surely not good looks) are relevant to a candidate's ability to lead - Eisenhower being a case in point. And I suppose that a solid partner and disciplined life is a criterion as well, for many people. That would sure have let out Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela and many other leaders who proved themselves in crises and long service. So, on what basis should we judge?

  2. As a 45-year-old housewife who makes everything from scratch, I can assure you I'm not the American ideal. furthermore, all of the shoes in my closet combined probably total $550 worth. (truthfully, that's just because I don't care that much about shoes; don't look in my wine fridge.)

    I'm not sure if voters are happy or not about politically influential first ladies, but unless they are taken seriously prior to the election, we will never find out anything significant about them.

  3. The American public simply cannot take a woman seriously as a person, period. They see a woman differently. They have to first see her appearance and judge her sexuality; if she is a strong woman, she has a Bitch Factor. If she has a family, she had better be an Ideal Mother, or she is sacrificing her children for the sake of her career, forsaking a Sacred Duty for an Artificial and Selfish One. A man is never, ever judged this way. He can have eleven children, but if he "works outside the home", he is The Provider. It's just a whole different set of rules, American or not.

    First Ladies (and this is a designation which really had its first foothold with Mary Lincoln, my favourite FL) are held to an impossible standard. Mary Lincoln in particular, the poor woman, was in a real no-win situation. Southerners saw her--a native Kentuckian--as the worst kind of traitor, and Northerners saw her as an obvious spy and treasonous trespasser in the nation's sacred capitol building. It would only get worse from then on, it seems.

    Why anyone would want either job--POTUS or FLOTUS--is beyond me.

    1. Well, being POTUS has potential, although I suspect most presidents never feel they have done enough. I hate to think how awful it is for Obama, having lost the belief of many of his followers through crises that he either inherited or could not have stopped. But a President's spouse (what will we call the First Husband?) must have to really swallow down natural dismay. And, yes, Mrs Lincoln got savaged. Have you read Barbara Hambly's book about her?

    2. I have not read Ms. Hambly's book, primarily because it is fiction. I know it is historical fiction, but I prefer to read nonfiction and history. Jean Baker's biography of Mary Lincoln is very good, and I have read myriad other treatments of M. Lincoln in order to try and get an unbiased view. Last year, I read a collection of all of M. Lincoln's extant letters. While she was often very self-centred and affected, she was also extremely generous and warm; in short, human. It is inherently dangerous both to forensically interpret and examine a personality as well as elevate our flesh-and-blood leaders to godlike status. Both endeavours will undoubtedly lead us astray.

    3. Thanks for the references. I mostly stick to non fiction in this area as well but find that some of the fictional treatments are interesting for the author's pov.
      I agree with the danger you point out - as you probably also found, students of literature are faced with two separate philosophies, the 'take the ouevre by itself' and the 'examine the writer'. Looking at political personalities is not so different. Margaret Truman's take on Mrs Lincoln is done in context of the troubled time she lived in and is quite convincing. The book is cited in my post - do you know it?

    4. I'm unfamiliar with that book. I don't recall it ever being cited or mentioned in any of the other books/articles I've read about Mary Lincoln, either. I had no idea it existed. I'll look into it; thank you for bringing it to my attention although ML is really the only First Lady I have a real interest in.

  4. De, they don't seem to be judged on anything significant. That's my complaint. But their husbands seem to be judged in relation to the parts of them that interest the public, many of which are completely trivial.
    If the First Lady position is to be taken seriously then it should be auditioned seriously, no?

  5. Congratulations on a fine essay. Americans are in general much more star-conscious than we are although we get sewpt up in their system as well. I might be hard-pressed to pick Mrs Harper out of a lineup but wouold have no problem with the American first ladies.

  6. I wrote a rant--and deleted it. I'll just say, I'm for Mitt! and I admire his wife, her courage and resiliance. I think the pair are just what America needs. Your take on our politics fired me up! Which of course any post on politics would fire me up. Things are getting quite intense the closer the election gets. I'm quite excited to see how it turns out :)

  7. Kaye, I wish you hadn't. Your viewpoint is something I would love to have. I was not trying to put down Mrs Romney - my objection is to the way she was presented, to the things she was advised to say and the image created. My husband, for one, is looking forward to seeing how Mitt Romney's business acumen translates into putting the USA back on track if he is elected.

    The whole 'image' thing is what I was addressing, whether Democrat crafted or Republican crafted.

  8. I'm not that interested in people who are *stars* or in what they do.
    I hope people vote because of the things they represent not how they look.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  9. Fabulous photo!

    And Michelle was fantastic, wasn't she? I think you must write about THAT now, after sharing with us this thoughtful post.

  10. I guess our first family is our royalty. I don't think we are QUITE as fascinated with the first lady as the Brits are with their princesses.

    And yes, Ann Romney just had me wanting to roll my eyes.

  11. In part, what I don't understand is why the first ladies (and potential such) are even on the radar or giving speeches. I'm not voting for the spouse, I'm voting for the candidate.