Melania Trump notably waded into personnel matters at the White House recently by way of a succinct public statement on former Deputy National Security Adviser Mira Ricardel. Not surprisingly, especially considering the more elusive nature of the current East Wing, the action invited a flood of comparison and critique.
Now, I agree that the public delivery of the East Wing’s sentiments was an unprecedented move. It certainly sent a message. However, it is not the first time the first lady has offered a bold opinion. For example, this past summer, joining the voices of her predecessors, Mrs. Trump cited her strong dislike of the administration’s policy of family separation at the United States-Mexico border. And in direct contrast to the vocal views of her husband, Mrs. Trump praised the work of LeBron James and the I Promise School.
Moreover, though Mrs. Trump has only occasionally spoken out, that doesn’t mean her influence isn’t happening behind the scenes. Unfortunately, as a culture, we regularly overlook the fact that one of the most significant roles of a first spouse is that of partner or teammate — to the president and the people.
As envoys, advisers and independent voices, their influence on the Executive Office is evident throughout history. Of course, the ways this dynamic has played out are as unique as the individual relationships between wives and husbands. But a first lady’s effect on internal politics is by no means a modern phenomenon.
Abigail Adams held opinions on everything and everyone. And she didn’t hold back in airing her views, acknowledging that she expected to be “vilified and abused” for doing so. Mrs. Adams was known for her no-nonsense letters, and editorials at the time even joked that the president would not dare make a political appointment without her consent.
Florence Harding not only made clear her positions on issues like women’s suffrage, racial injustice and the well-being of veterans, she was also heavily involved in her husband’s administration, advising on Cabinet selections, political appointees and other matters. Warren G. Harding’s pet name for her, “The Duchess,” became her moniker at the White House, a reflection of her wide-reaching influence on the presidency. Though she put up with a lot in life and her short tenure as first lady, her influence has been sadly disregarded due to the scandals of the Harding administration.
And across the pond, though history has largely overlooked her incredible contributions, Clementine Churchill proved to be one of the most influential allies and advisers in Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s life. In many ways they were opposites — Mrs. Churchill was deliberate in her views, more liberal in her politics and practical when it came to finances — and she wasn’t afraid to speak up to her husband or anyone else. In fact, Churchill’s chief of staff, Gen. “Pug” Ismay, stated that without Mrs. Churchill the “history of Winston Churchill and of the world would have been a very different story.”
Defined by flexibility and opportunity on one hand, and constraints on the others, the construct of a first lady’s role has been continuously molded and remolded by the unique personalities and interests of the women who have stepped up to the position, both with prominence and stealth.
The outcry and intrigue surrounding Mrs. Trump’s authority on personnel matters yet again spotlights the narrow margin of error society expects of first ladies. Overstep or evade an ever moving spectrum of public anticipation and be prepared to hear about it.
But amid a role without a rulebook, and often at a rate of personal sacrifice, first ladies have stepped up to the plate in support of political campaigns, policy decisions, and yes, even matters of office staffing and political appointees. After all, the role of a first lady is whatever she wants it to be.
Natalie Gonnella-Platts is the deputy director of the Bush Institute’s Women’s Initiative, the co-author of “A Role Without a Rulebook: The Influence and Leadership of Global First Ladies,” and host of the podcast Ladies, First.