An Accidental Feminist

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The unconventional nature of the Trump administration has left many criticizing its actions in both legislation and public relations. Donald J. Trump’s executive order to prevent immigration from several Middle Eastern countries has been denounced as sloppy and poorly planned, let alone bigoted. But while President Trump has been subjected to constant condemnation, his wife has been catching a fair amount of criticism as well. The New York Times worried in a recent article that Melania Trump won’t fulfill the traditional role of first lady. And indeed, she still has not moved into the White House with her husband and doesn’t seem inclined to do so any time soon. She plans, instead, to stay in New York to live with their 10-year-old son, Barron, while he finishes school. If we suppress the urge to hate all things related to Donald Trump, including his wife, we might find a rejection of traditional gender roles in Mrs. Trump’s controversial absence, and thus a kernel of justice.

First Lady of the United States is not an official title; first ladies don’t get sworn in like their husbands, nor do they receive a salary. The lack of compensation has subsequently tarnished the position of first lady by indirectly regarding it at a lesser level of importance than the president or even his advisers, who are occupied with obligations of importance in contemporary politics. Instead, first ladies usually adopt public duties that relate to the well-being of children and families. Officially, they have no role in shaping policy or influencing government, although some have clearly played important roles in their husband’s administration.

President Trump, however, appears uninterested in hearing his wife’s council, and she appears uninterested in offering it. Not all first ladies were the same way; Hillary Clinton undoubtedly influenced President Clinton’s policies. She controversially headed a healthcare taskforce in 1993, created to devise a universal healthcare plan. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was similarly involved in politics; while she was first lady, she was an outspoken advocate for civil rights and wrote myriad columns and articles outlining her views. Melania Trump, on the other hand, appears to have no interest in politics. This was revealed in full during the speech she gave at the Republican National Convention last summer; at least two of its lines, and much of its phrasing, were lifted from a speech Michelle Obama gave in 2008 while Barack Obama was running for president for the first time.

The traditional responsibility of the first lady, if she’s not advising the president, is White House homemaking and hosting. Melania Trump seems to have abdicated these responsibilities as well. “It is not clear how much planning has gone into the elaborate White House events that are among the heaviest tasks for first ladies, such as the annual Easter Egg Roll,” one New York Times reporter lamented. Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University was quoted in that article, saying, “She is far behind the curve compared to where modern first ladies have been by the time their husbands are inaugurated, in a quite unprecedented way.” Mrs. Trump also appears to be dragging her heels on fulfilling other duties America has come to expect from its first lady. She only recently picked an interior designer to re-do the White House’s private quarters, according to The Times’ article.1 The general assumption that she should be doing all these things is inherently sexist. She did not sign up for any of these homemaking duties, nor was she elected to do them, so expecting her to be the unpaid homemaker in chief is no different than expecting her to vacuum the White House floor.

Since the inauguration, pictures depicting an unhappy, disinterested Melania Trump at political events have spawned the #FreeMelania hashtag, and the accompanying social media campaign to focus attention on her predicament, and stand up for her wellbeing. The fact that Melania is married to a man like Donald (living, presumably, as a constant victim of misogyny) and the fact that she has been so reluctant to embrace the role of first lady makes her an inadvertent feminist symbol.

  1. Davis, Julie Hirschfeld. “Melania Trump’s Absence From Washington Raises Questions About Her Role.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Feb. 2017. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

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