More Than Meets the Eye

And while at first glance, these First Ladies appear categorically different from each other, they are, however, as women rising from humble origins to pursue their ambitions and support their husbands, more similar than one might think. The following is an excerpt from Tammy R. Vigil's forthcoming book Melania & Michelle: First Ladies in a New Era. 

One of the most prominent charges leveled against first ladies is overstepping the unclear boundaries of the role. Many women are accused of this type of misconduct while in the East Wing. The vast majority of such protestations are simple critiques of low-consequence activity, but sometimes the women’s deportment invokes more concerted reproach. Perhaps the most serious example is the supposed misdeeds of Edith Wilson. After her husband, Woodrow, had a stroke, she became the gatekeeper to the president and assumed many of his duties instead of allowing the vice president to take over. Her actions were questioned at the time, but she nevertheless persisted in them for approximately seventeen months. Reporters and scholars later dubbed her the “first female president” as a way of both applauding her efforts and criticizing her unconstitutional assumption of power. Less overt but still controversial examples of first ladies ostensibly extending their political reach beyond the presumed limits of their position include Rosalynn Carter attending presidential cabinet meetings and testifying before a US Senate committee in support of mental health legislation, Nancy Reagan controlling her husband’s schedule based on her consultations with an astrologer, and Hillary Clinton’s leadership of a failed health care reform effort during her first year in the White House.

Michelle Obama and Melania Trump, just like all other first ladies, each endured a large amount of criticism. The press, the public, and particularly the opposition appeared to look for almost any excuse to publicly harangue the women performing what is arguably the most difficult unpaid job in American politics. Both Obama and Trump encountered backlash about their fashion choices, their purportedly expensive tastes, their political involvement (or lack thereof), and numerous other topics. One of the greatest difficulties that both women confronted was the highly partisan nature of the political environment during the eras in which they served. Many pundits took aim at Obama and Trump as a means of attacking their husbands and as a way to connect with left- or right-wing audience members. A second major challenge the two faced, and one unique to more modern first ladies, was the expanded media environment. The pervasiveness of social media meant that Obama and Trump encountered a new cacophony of critics because anyone with access to the internet became a potential commentator. In addition, the expectation that the women engage with the public through social media meant these contemporary first ladies were evaluated based upon new types of communicative behaviors.

In spite of the new media context in which both women operated as first lady, Michelle Obama and Melania Trump were assessed in ways that mimicked how past White House matrons were judged. They were accused of not behaving in a manner appropriate to the role by being unladylike or, more specifically, un-first-ladylike. They were also negatively gauged based on their perceived ability and desire to fulfill the obligations of the position. While most appraisals of the two were common critiques, Melania Trump did find herself occasionally embroiled in scandals, some of her own making and others instigated by her husband.

Melania & Michelle: First Ladies in a New Era

Coming September 1, 2019

Tammy R. Vigil’s recent books include Moms in Chief and Connecting with Constituents. She has also published articles or chapters on rhetoric by Michelle Obama, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and George W. Bush; the history of nominating conventions; and convention speeches by presidential nominees’ spouses. Dr. Vigil is Associate Professor of Communication at Boston University and studies political campaign rhetoric and women as political communicators. She formerly served as associate dean of the College of Communication at Boston University and is a past winner of the Wrange-Baskerville award given by the Public Address Division of the National Communication Association. Stay connected with Tammy online on Twitter.