The Role Of First Ladies

A comparison between the US and Europe

Bachelor Thesis, 2009

55 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

List of Figures

List of Abbreviations

Abstract in English Language

Abstract in German Language

1 Introduction

2 Origin of the Title

3 The Duties of a First Lady
3.1. Social Duties
3.1.1. Private Partner
3.1.2. White House Manager and Hostess
3.1.3. Role Model
3.1.4. Social Advocate
3.2. Political Duties
3.2.1. Presidential Advisor and Public Partner
3.2.2. Campaigner and Spokesperson
3.2.3. Diplomat
3.3. Watson’s Eleven Duties
3.3.1. Wife and Mother
3.3.2. Public Figure and Celebrity
3.3.3. Nation’s Social Hostess
3.3.4. Symbol of the American Woman
3.3.5. White House Manager and Preservationist
3.3.6. Campaigner
3.3.7. Advocate and Champion of Social Causes
3.3.8. Presidential Spokesperson
3.3.9. Presidential and Political Party Booster
3.3.10. Diplomat
3.3.11. Political and Presidential Partner

4 The evolving office of First Lady

5 First Ladyship and Feminism

6 The First Lady as Public Persona

7 The Presidential Partnership
7.1. Full Partner
7.2. Partial Partner
7.3. Behind-the-Scenes Partner
7.4. Partner in Marriage
7.5. Non-Partner

8 Informal Influence

9 Influence on Presidential Politics

10 The First Lady as a Member of the White House Office
10.1. The Statutory Law
10.2. The Case Law
10.3. The Dynamic of Formal and Informal Power
10.3.1. Eleanor Roosevelt, Assistant Director of the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD; September 1941–February 1942)
10.3.2. Rosalynn Carter, Honorary Chairman of the President’s Commission on Mental Health (February 1977–April 1978)
10.3.3. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Chair of the President’s Task Force on National Health Reform (January 1993–1994)

11 European First Ladies

12 Comparison
12.1. Political System
12.2. Political Culture

13 Conclusion

14 List of references

List of Figures

Figure 1. Gallup Polls on importance of candidate’s spouse

Figure 2. Gallup Poll on first ladies’ influence

Figure 3. Watson’s four dimensions of governmental participation

List of Abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Abstract in English language

On whatever continent we look, the heads of states’ spouses still share several characteristics. Most notably this is the largely unacknowledged invisible influence on their partners and thus on politics. But also their – for the most part – unrecognized social work in form of charitable events and alike is a shared feature. However numerous the similarities between different states’ first ladies might be, considerable regional distinctions persist, as this paper demonstrates in the cases of the United States and Europe.

The objective of the paper is to get the reader acquainted with several principles of first ladyship such as the evolvement of the role, duties that might be imposed by the public and duties first ladies decide to assume as well as public interest and influences first ladies can wield. The questions to be answered are how the role of First Ladies can be defined and, more specifically, what extent of influence they are able to exercise. A subpart of the paper will deal with European first ladies and the comparison to US American first ladies.

Secondary research for this paper was conducted in libraries and via the Internet. Books and journal articles form the most important part of secondary research sources.

Abstract in german language

Egal welcher Kontinent betrachtet wird, die Partner der jeweiligen Staatsoberhäupter haben immer einige Gemeinsamkeiten. Allem voran ist dies größtenteils deren nicht anerkannte unsichtbare Einflussnahme auf ihre Partner und somit auch die Politik. Doch auch die oft unbeachtete Sozialarbeit in Form von karitativen Veranstaltungen und ähnlichem sind ein gemeinsames Merkmal. Wie zahlreich die Ähnlichkeiten zwischen First Ladies in verschiedenen Staaten auch sein mögen so bestehen trotz allem bedeutende regionale Unterschiede, wie diese Arbeit im Fall der USA und Europa zeigt.

Ziel dieser Arbeit ist es, den Leser mit einigen Grundlagen des Amtes vertraut zu machen. Dazu zählen unter anderem die historische Entwicklung der Rolle, die Aufgaben, die die Öffentlichkeit von First Ladies eventuell erwartet sowie jene, die First Ladies zu erfüllen gedenken. Außerdem gilt es das öffentliche Interesse an den Personen sowie das Ausmaß an Einfluss, das First Ladies ausüben können zu analysieren. Ein Unterpunkt der Arbeit wird sich mit europäischen First Ladies und deren Vergleich mit dem US amerikanischen Äquivalent.

Die Sekundärforschung die in dieser Arbeit zur Anwendung kommt wurde in Bibliotheken und per Internet durchgeführt. Bücher und wissenschaftliche Fachartikel bilden den wichtigsten Teil der sekundären Quellen.

1 Introduction

The position, role and influence of first ladies have long been overlooked and unaware of. While history is full of examples of “a power operating behind the throne”, political scholars have largely ignored the topic of influential spouses. Scholarly literature on first ladies emerged in the 1980s and is mainly focusing on US first ladies. Their European counterparts receive little attention and if they do so it is mainly in the form of biographies. Undoubtedly, first ladies are the person closest to one of the leading politicians in their respective country and therefore are able to wield a considerable amount of influence. It seems, however, as if the public rather focuses on scandal and controversy, a first lady’s private life or the traditional functions of her office than on her being a viable part of the presidency, the political landscape or even the nation.

The aim of this paper is to contribute to the scarce research on first ladies by giving a concise definition of the role of a first lady as well as the powers and obligations this office holds. It will not be a biographical line-up of US American and European first ladies but rather will try to look behind the scenes of a first lady’s sphere of action. Furthermore, the research will include an analysis of the invisible influence this office grants and how first ladies can exert their influence and it will also examine the political partnership between presidents and their spouses. Ultimately, this paper tries to compare European and US first ladies.

The paper can roughly be grouped into three parts, the first two centering on US first ladies while the last part will cover the topic of European first ladies and also give a comparison of European and US first ladies. The first part on US first ladies is concerned with answering questions regarding the origin of the title and the duties and roles a first lady assumes as well as the evolvement of the office and its connection to feminism. In the subsequent part the research is focused on the informal influence wielded by first ladies and their partaking in politics. The third section finally deals with European first ladies and concludes with comparing US American and European first ladies. The main focus here lies in their public appearance and the reasons for the unequal attention they receive.

Concerning the spelling of the term “first lady” this paper will use the form of leading first ladies’ scholars like Robert P. Watson, Barbara C. Burrell and Lewis L. Gould and use lower case letters except when referring directly to a specific first lady. In citations the spelling of the original author will be used. Furthermore, all other titles will be written in lower case except when used as a reference to a specific person. The reader is advised that the president of the United States will be considered as male since there has not been a female president so far. For simplification, European heads of state or government will also be dealt with as if male in order to avoid complicating and confusing gender specific references. The use of the term “office” in connection with first ladies is technically speaking not correct, as an office is characterized as “a special duty, charge, or position conferred by an exercise of governmental authority and for a public purpose” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2009), a definition which a first lady’s extra-constitutional function does not meet. For simplification, the term will nevertheless be used in this paper.

2 Origin of the title

Amongst historians and scholars great disaccord as to the origin of the title first lady exists and several theories have appeared over the years. The term is – although widely used and accepted – not an official one. What can definitely be said from today’s perspective is that the early first ladies have not been referred to as such in their days. The use of “Lady Washington/ Adams/ Madison”, “Mrs. President”, “Her Majesty” and “Presidentress” was frequent for the first three wives of presidents, though not without some ambivalence. While the young nation’s people wished to address their chief executive’s spouse in an adequate manner, an aversion towards monarchical titles remained. (cf. Keener 2008) A certain affinity with royal terms can, however, not be denied and, as Margaret Mead, an anthropologist, puts it: ”Kings and queens have always focused people’s feelings and since we are not very far from a monarchy, the president’s wife, whoever she is, has little choice but to serve as our queen.” (cited following Caroli, 2003, p.xvi)

The first time the phrase “first lady” was used was most likely at the funeral of Dolley Madison in 1849 when president Zachary Taylor eulogized her in saying: “She will never be forgotten, because she was truly our First Lady for a half-century.” (cf. The National First Ladies Library, 2009, #The Role of First Lady and Origin of the Title "First Lady" ) But still the title was not commonly used until ten years later when Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper used the term for the first time in print. (cf. Sferrazza Anthony, n.d.a.) Uncertain as to how to refer to the niece of bachelor president Buchanan, Harriet Lane was addressed as ”first lady of the White House”. From then on the term was more publicly used in reference to women like Mary Todd Lincoln, Julia Grant, Lucy Webb Hayes and Francis Folsom Cleveland. With Charles Nirdlinger’s play, called “The First Lady in the Land”, of 1911 about Dolley Madison the title reached true popularity. (cf. Sferrazza Anthony, n.d.a.)

Many first ladies were not particularly fond of the title, most famously Jacqueline Kennedy who stated that it sounded like the name of “a saddle-horse”. (cf. Sferrazza Anthony, n.d.a.)

As to the wording of the title, Mayo and Meringolo (1994, cited following Burrell, 2001, p.14) state that “first” suggests that she is to be a role model while “lady” hints the expectation of a certain kind of appearance, manners and demeanor. This describes perfectly well the dilemma a first lady finds herself in. While she has to fulfill the public’s changing expectations of home, family and womanhood she, at the same time, should stick to her traditional roles. The office therefore, as Watson (2000, pp.24–25) correctly states, cannot be viewed as simply modern or traditional but rather has a multidimensional facet to it, which the first lady is challenged to keep in balance.

In 1934 a dictionary adopted the term for the first time (cf. Watson, 2000) – namely Webster’s New International Dictionary, which today states: “First lady: The wife or hostess of the chief executive of a country or jurisdiction” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2009)

3 The Duties of a First Lady

Unpaid and unelected, every first lady, although without any official duties, has to fulfill the role that was shaped by all women who held the title before her. The office of first lady developed gradually, with every woman who occupied the position adding to it. It is not public election that confers this title but rather the fact that those women are married to the current president. In some cases, female relatives other then the wife have also performed the role if the president was widowed or single. Different approaches how to categorize the duties of first ladies exist and this paper will introduce the reader to two of them.

Nina Westermann (2004, pp.10–18) identifies two distinct types of duties – social and political ones ­– while Robert Watson talks about eleven fundamental roles. In both cases the traditional duties are those widely accepted by the public while the modern and politically oriented ones are subject to heavy criticism and scrutiny.

It has to be beared in mind that each first lady will model the office according to her personal likes and dislikes and not every duty will necessarily be fulfilled by every first lady to the same extent, in the same way or at all.

3.1. Social Duties

Most duties in this category are as old as the office itself and the public views them as fundamental to the role first ladies assume.

3.1.1. Private Partner

Despite the public person a woman becomes when her husband is elected president of the United States there is a highly private aspect to those women, mothers, grandmothers etc. This dichotomy between private and public makes the office of first lady such a challenge.

As Westermann (p.11) writes, “the family aspect in American politics is not to be underestimated”. The only two bachelor presidents the nation ever saw, James Buchanan and Grover Cleveland (the latter marrying halfway through his second term) encountered substantial difficulties, which shows that the public “expects their White House inhabitants to come in pairs”. (ibid.)

What should not be forgotten is that it is not only the first lady who acts as a role model but that the whole first family is idealized.

3.1.2. White House Manager and Hostess

All first ladies have fulfilled their role as a hostess, the oldest remaining role, to varying degrees. Hosting state dinners and White House events is equally an important feature of this function as is greeting foreign heads of state and American political leaders or managing White House household affairs. (cf. Mayo & Graddy, 2004, p.6; APA, 2008) There is also a political side to the hostess role and many first ladies contrived ways of using these events to build support for their spouse’s political career. (cf. Westermann, p.11, 2004)

Additionally to the activities she assumes as a hostess, the first lady also serves as the curator of the White House, which is not only a private residence but also a monument and a part of living American history. (cf. Keener, 2008) Many first ladies also undertook significant restructuring and redecoration projects.

3.1.3. Role Model

Since the early days of the office, the first lady has played a significant role in transporting the ideals of American womanhood and people have projected their ideas about family and home on the members of the most transparent family of the nation (if not even the world). Westermann (p.13) suggests that, due to the popularity a first lady enjoys, her influence as role model might be one of the strongest powers she has. As her every move is closely watched even symbolic acts serve as expressions of support or criticism.

3.1.4. Social Advocate

As traditional as serving as the nation’s hostess is a first lady’s promotion of social concerns. (cf. Mayo & Graddy, 2004, p.6) Due to her influence and position, the first lady can extensively lobby her platform, historically ranging from the Temperance Movement to the Equal Rights Amendment (cf. Mayo & Graddy, 2004, p.6) It has become customary for every first lady to adopt a so called pet project and some have gone as far as politically promoting their projects, therefore quite actively involving into policy making.

3.2. Political Duties

Not all first ladies have had an active interest in politics and legislation but those who did served as informal advisors to their spouses, thus politically influencing the presidential administration. (cf. Sferrazza Anthony, 2009) Nancy Reagan, for example, allegedly encouraged the dialogue between her husband Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev. Quite known is also Hillary Clinton’s involvement in policy as she was appointed to chair the President’s Task Force on National Health Care Reform (cf. Logue, 2009)

Political partaking is doubtlessly the most critical role a first lady can assume and there is a theory suggesting that political activism may be related to party-affiliation. According to this, Democratic first ladies tend to be much more politically active than their Republican counterparts. The stereotypical Democratic first lady can be viewed as her spouses’ political partner attending congressional hearings, helping to propose new policies and advising her husband. Republican first ladies, quite contrarily, are more partners in marriage and tend to fulfill rather traditional roles in being the wife and supporting the husband. In accordance with this categorization, the more politically active first ladies such as Ellen Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosalynn Carter or Hillary Clinton were married to Democratic Presidents. Robert P. Watson supports this theory and points out: “Democratic wives are somewhat more likely than Republican wives to approach the office in the capacity of a political partner.” (Watson, 2000, p.131) Of course there have also been Republican first ladies, most notably Nancy Reagan, who were politically active but an analysis of the first ladies’ biographies since the establishment of the two parties strongly suggests the validity of this theory. (cf. HowStuffWorks, 2008)

3.2.1. Presidential Advisor and Public Partner

It is save to say that the presidency has often been viewed as a political partnership in which the first lady serves as the president’s most trusted confidante. In most cases the two partners have been a pair long before the election and the first lady therefore is the person emotionally closest to the president[1]. Carren O’Connor, Bernadette Nye and Laura van Assendelft state that at least twenty-six first ladies can be considered confidantes and Robert P. Watson even goes as far as identifying thirty-three first ladies who regularly discussed politics with their spouses.

3.2.2. Campaigner and Spokesperson

Many first ladies have supported their husbands and made contributions to their spouses’ careers even before co-campaigning became an issue. When female voters came into the picture of presidential campaigning, first ladies were used to attract women’s votes. But also the appearance of radio and television hold an important stake in the development of a first lady’s function as campaigner and spokesperson. The first lady can be an important asset during election season as well as during the term. Since she is the person closest to the president (to be), public and media turn to her for any hint of her husband’s ideologies and ideas.

The following two Gallup polls conducted in the run-up to the presidential elections of 2004 and 2008 respectively indicate the special importance first ladies take as campaigners and spokespersons for their husbands even before inauguration.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1. Gallup Polls on importance of candidate’s spouse (Gallup Inc. 2008)


[1] As Rosalynn Carter put it: “When a husband and a wife are interested in each other, you affect each other.” (cf. Sferrazza Anthony, p.274, 1991)

Excerpt out of 55 pages


The Role Of First Ladies
A comparison between the US and Europe
University of applied sciences  (Export Oriented Management)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
756 KB
Role, First, Ladies, Europe
Quote paper
Magdalena Böck (Author), 2009, The Role Of First Ladies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: The Role Of First Ladies

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free