Tammy Vigil On: Melania & Michelle

Tammy R. VigilThe following is a guest blog post from writer Tammy Vigil, author of Melania & Michelle: First Ladies in a New EraNow available in bookstores everywhere!

Tammy R. Vigil has also published articles 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. Dr. Vigil's recent books include Moms in Chief and Connecting with Constituents.

Pat Nixon once said that being the first lady was the hardest unpaid job in the world. Although some people might disagree with this claim, there are certainly grounds for Nixon’s complaint. Modern U.S. first ladies are thrust into a high profile position that has no codified authority and no clearly delineated job description. The women who have assumed this nebulous role have faced a variety of critiques that are often personal, usually partisan, and frequently based on ever-changing, highly subjective perceptions of American womanhood. In Melania & Michelle: First Ladies in a New Era, I explore the hurdles Melania Trump and Michelle Obama encountered and their various efforts to meet the demands of being a president’s spouse.

My fascination with U.S. first ladies began long before I’d heard of either Melania Trump or Michelle Obama. Coming of age politically during the early 1990s, it was hard not to notice the different public personas of first ladies like Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton and impossible to ignore the impact that press portrayals of these women had on the public. I still remember people around me parroting media-based descriptions of these women while proffering their own personal and biting assessments of the first ladies. Otherwise reasonable adults would enthusiastically censure the president’s spouse for everything from her clothing to her physical characteristics to her presence or absence at a particular event to her public service agenda. I found it curious that these women were not elected officials yet they were treated as though they had been on the ballot. In recent years, as the internet has given more people a means to broadcast their opinions, the tendency for people to publicly excoriate the first lady based on fluctuating and arbitrary criteria have increased. Appraisals of first ladies—whether founded in fact, conjecture, or simple partisan pandering—are more prevalent, and often more scathing, than ever before.

My previous book Moms in Chief: The Rhetoric of Republican Motherhood and the Spouses of Presidential Nominees, 1992-2016 illustrates the ways depictions of spouses by the press and political parties (along with self-portrayals by the candidates’ consorts themselves) influence people’s judgments about individual women and women as political actors generally. That project piqued my interest in discussions regarding Melania Trump and Michelle Obama as our two most recent first ladies. In particular, I noted how agenda-laden coverage sometimes distorts public opinion concerning these women.

In Melania & Michelle, I offer a balanced comparison of Melania Trump and Michelle Obama at similar points in their evolution from a candidate’s mate to sitting first lady. Throughout the book, I invite readers to reexamine their impressions of Melania Trump and Michelle Obama and to revisit their assumptions about first ladies more broadly.  Drawing on observations and anecdotes about past first ladies, I outline the historical roots of the expectations placed on Trump and Obama and demonstrate how each met or contested these standards. Although Trump and Obama seem like very different first ladies, they have more in common than many people might want to admit. Still, like each of their predecessors, Trump and Obama are unique individuals whose experiences led them to develop distinct approaches to fulfilling the ambiguous and continually shifting obligations placed upon the first lady of the United States. 

- Tammy R. Vigil

About the Book

MELANIA & MICHELLE First Ladies in a New Era

At home or at the podium, the First Lady is uniquely poised to serve as advisor, confidant, and campaigner, with the power to shape American political and social conversation. At first blush, First Ladies Michelle Obama and Melania Trump appear categorically different from each other; however, as women rising from humble origins to pursue their ambitions and support their husbands, the two have more in common than one might think.

In Melania & Michelle: First Ladies in a New Era, author Tammy R. Vigil provides a compelling account of our modern first ladies, exploring how each woman has crafted her public image and used her platform to influence the country, while also serving as a paragon of fashion and American womanhood. Both women face constant scrutiny and comparison—from their degrees of political activism to their cookie recipes—and have garnered support as well as criticism. From their full lives pre-nomination to their attitudes while occupying the White House, Vigil builds careful and thoughtful portraits of Melania Trump and Michelle Obama that provide new appreciation for how these women, and the first ladies that came before them, have shaped our country.