From 1989 to 1993, Barbara Bush made the second hardest job in America look easy. This achievement was particularly impressive considering she was sandwiched between two lighting-rod-like first ladies. Barbara Bush could see what Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton could not: the unwritten rules governing this extraconstitutional position. Gossamer shackles restrain the woman standing on what Nancy Reagan called the “white glove pulpit”—a recognition of the political delicacy the modern job of first lady requires.
It’s a dangerous delusion to think otherwise, as Reagan and Clinton found out the hard way—and Melania Trump may well learn in time. First ladies juggle the traditional assumptions buried within the old-fashioned title with modern pressures on prominent women to lead. Clinton famously said of her decision to pursue a career while her husband was governor of Arkansas, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,” setting off a wave of condemnation for seeming to denigrate women who chose to be homemakers, while Laura Bush faced constant sniggers for being exactly that. Beyond all the mixed messaging around women’s roles, the reality is that first ladies, like all unelected advisers surrounding the president, must beware the invisible tripwires surrounding the most powerful man in the world.
In fact, two very different women – Reagan and Clinton – endured similar slurs because they set off this lingering American sexism along with perennial American fears of manipulative Rasputins. Nancy Reagan always protected her “Ronnie.” Policy or politics rarely interested her; the president did—so she monitored her husband’s poll ratings and historical reputation. “If Ronnie were a shoe salesman,” she explained, “I’d be out selling shoes.” Her solicitousness stirred attacks on her as a power-mad Lady Macbeth, especially when she deposed Reagan’s second chief of staff, Donald Regan.
Hillary Clinton cared intensely about policy and politics – sometimes to the detriment of her husband’s standing. Yet she, too, was caricatured as Lady Macbeth—and worse, especially when her health care reform plan tanked. “Shrillary” was called a “feminazi” trying to bring on “Big Sister”; she was at once “frigid,” the lover of the late White House staffer Vince Foster, and a lesbian. The overlapping, sexist attacks suggest she violated the same protocols that Nancy Reagan did.
Barbara Bush was more cautious. In 1992, she called herself “half Eleanor, half Bess,” explaining: “I go out and do a lot of things. I do lots of traveling and a lot of programs ... I really stay out of government business if I possibly can.” Eleanor Roosevelt epitomized the activist, even defiant first lady. Bess Truman embodied the traditional presidential spouse. In the 1950s, Mrs. Truman preferred staying back home in Independence, Missouri, avoiding what her husband called “The Great White Jail.” ...