A model-turned-jewelry-designer and mother of a 10-year-old boy, Melania Trump hasn't altered her lifestyle in any discernible way. She hasn't moved into the White House, ostensibly because she doesn't want to interrupt her son's education. Judging by the White House's recent promotion of her jewelry line, she hasn't quit her job — although QVC, which once carried her line, appears to have dropped it, according to the Washington Post.
She has yet to appoint a press secretary, a floral designer, or a White House chef, and she waited until Valentine's Day to announce the White House Visitors Office would resume public tours in March. She has said she'd like to use her platform to combat cyberbullying, and Donald Trump recently claimed the first lady would tackle "women's difficulties." It's unclear if she really intends to do any of this, however.
That Melania is no gender-role rebel makes her willful rejection of traditional first ladyhood even more striking.
Some find her indifference troubling. As Lauren Wright, a political scientist and author of On Behalf of the President, told the Chicago Tribune, "There's a public expectation for communication, and she's not providing it ... there doesn't seem to be a willingness to shape her public image, despite the public interest."
But that's only a problem if you think a woman should put her life on hold to take a job as her husband's helpmate. Melania, in her own words, "chose not to go into politics and policy." If she's not interested in wielding political influence, why should she give up her New York life to become a Real Housewife of D.C.? Especially, as the New York Times recently noted, for an unpaid job?
That Melania Trump is no gender-role rebel — she told ABC News she probably won't have more kids because she's too busy taking care of her "big boy and [her] little boy" — makes her willful rejection of traditional first ladyhood even more striking. Melania is a wife and mother, but it's hard to picture her behaving, on a regular basis, like most contemporary first ladies, including her predecessor, Michelle Obama ... cooing over babies, hosting Girl Scouts, handing out Halloween candy or dancing to Gloria Estefan.
Like her husband, Melania Trump tends to do what she wants, which makes her prone to contradicting herself. That she has so far gotten away with it, occasional side-eye notwithstanding, is a welcome sign we're moving away from expecting first ladies to sacrifice their selfhood on the altar of tradition.
Melania Trump's distaste for the role is not unprecedented. Martha Washington complained about her "very dull life" and likened herself to "a state prisoner." Louisa Adams, the only foreign-born first lady before Melania, called the White House a "dull and stately prison." Bess Truman fled Washington every summer. But unlike Melania Trump, those ladies sucked it up and did what was expected of them.
Katherine Jellison, chair of the history department at Ohio University and an expert on first ladies, said Melania may indeed revise the role of first lady, albeit unintentionally: "She is behaving antithetically to what we have come to expect of contemporary first ladies. That may lower the bar for future first ladies who believe they have to become some kind of superwoman: the perfect wife, mother, hostess, public policy person, etc."
Given Donald Trump's "unusual approach" to politics, Jellison finds his wife's behavior unsurprising: "As long as all the other rules were being rewritten, why not just rewrite the rules for first ladies, too?"
One clear downside of Melania’s absenteeism, Jellison says, is that people might not love the “huge bills” the Trumps are racking up (New Yorkers in particular are feeling the pain).
When Obama became the nation's first black first lady in 2009, many hoped a whip-smart woman with two Ivy League degrees and a high-powered career would rewrite some rules of her own. After her husband was elected in 2008, Obama reportedly wanted to stay in Chicago with her daughters while they finished the school year, but was told by her husband's aides that "the public would never accept such a move," according to the New York Times.
They were probably right that Obama, who was stereotyped as an "angry black woman" and smeared as unpatriotic throughout her husband's tenure, would have been criticized for shirking the responsibilities of first lady-dom. So, fearing backlash, she took on a more traditional role — resigning from her job; starting a White House garden; adopting the cause of combating childhood obesity; prioritizing her role as "mom-in-chief" to her two daughters — and was rewarded with widespread public approval.
I admire Michelle Obama. But I can't help thinking that if Hillary Clinton had won, no one would have expected Bill Clinton to go from former president to granddad-in-chief. In fact, says Betty Boyd Caroli, author of First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama and other books, having Bill Clinton in the East Wing "would have ended the job of first lady as we know it."
Gender is the reason Bill Clinton wouldn't have been expected to quit his job and tend to the garden. It's time for women to claim that kind of privilege. The Trumps are living proof that a little bit of entitlement goes a long way.
Melania Trump either feels less pressure than her predecessor or is better at resisting it. Jean Wahl Harris, a professor in the political science department and women's studies program at the University of Scranton, said Melania's behavior might "give spouses of the future more options," including opting out of the role entirely. After all, "she didn’t run for office; she wasn’t elected; she should be able to have her own concerns and her own life."
Melania Trump is changing the rules for future presidential spouses, Jellison said, "by virtue of following her own desires." It’s time we stop expecting women to do otherwise, even if we like them better when they do.