Para leer este artículo en español, haga el clic aquí o visite la página de la revista Beerderberg.
Today’s post is a translation into English of my article published by Beerderberg, online Political Communication Review in Spanish.
“History of the First Ladyship in ten stories”
Generally they are seen, but not heard. They are often considered as a mere decor element to the most powerful man of the country. Nevertheless, throughout history, numerous first ladies have reached to impose themselves on the public stage, influenced the fate of their countries, and even in some cases, of the world.
Here is a short history of the First Ladyship, this never truly regulated by law institution, through ten tales about ten extraordinary women.
Martha Washington (USA, 1789- 1797): The Founding Mother
The First Lady’s institution was created at the very beginning of the American democracy. When George Washington took the lead of the country, his wife took that of the White House. As the housekeeper of the most important residence in the US, Martha Washington organized dinner parties and other meetings of which dreamt all those who aspired to the great politics. That is (probably) how the first gatekeeper of the modern history appeared.
Eleanor Roosevelt (USA, 1933- 1945): An international political actor
Eleanor Roosevelt, who was probably the most influencial first lady in the history of this institution in the world, is mostly known for having participated in drafting the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that she fought with determination for women’s rights. Roosevelt, a former journalist, clearly saw the male domination which prevailed in her profession. In order to counteract it, she decided to allow access to Presidential weekly press conferences only to female journalists. Newspapers that wanted direct information from the White House had no other option than hire women, subsquently opening them doors of the American political journalism.
Evita Perón (Argentina, 1946-1952): The Nation’s Fighter
Spiritual Leader of the Nation. This title was created by the Argentinian Congress in 1951 purposely for her. Since then, she was the only one to be granted with. Her commitment with the poor gave rise to her legend. Moreover, as a women’s rights’ defender, she took an active part in campaigning for female voting rights and wrote personally a part of the 1949 Constitution that guarantied equality in the marriage. Her life ended abruptly when she was only 33 years old. Never again a first lady has embodied so strongly the spirit of a nation.
Jacqueline Kennedy (USA, 1961 – 1963): An icon of modern political communication
Jacqueline Kennedy was not a political strategist and still she reached to introduce new standards of political communication. For all those who were 18 in the 1960’s the American Dream was defined by rhymes of the Beatles and by the first TV images of the perfect family: the Kennedys.
It is worth remembering as well that Jackie’s campaign message from the 1960 presidential elections in which she spoke in Spanish is considered today as the very beginning of political attempts to mobilize the American Spanish-spoken electorate.
Graça Machel (Mozambique, 1975 – 1988, South Africa, 1998 – 1999): a first lady for two countries
Two times and in two different countries Graça Machel carried out the function of the first lady: firstly, as the wife of Samora Machel, later, as the third spouse of Nelson Mandela. She was however far from creating a new profession. Graça Machel developed above all her own political career and became one of the most powerful women of the African continent. This lawyer, fluent in six languages, met her first husband in 1972 when they both actively participated in the Independence War in Mozambique. In the end of the 1980’s she was the Minister of Culture and Education. In 1996, next to Kofi Annan, she was considered an acceptable candidate to the office of the UN Secretary-General, but she withdrew her candidature in protest against political immobility of the organization.
Danielle Mitterrand (France, 1981 – 1996): The eternal indignant
When one asked her the hour, Danielle Mitterrand usually responded: „It’s five to Kurdish”. The cause of these people was her most important, yet not unique battlefield. Her work as a human rights’ defender provoked a dozen of diplomatic incidents and one bombing attack against her in Iraq. Her radical attitude embodied perfectly changes in 1980’s France, marked by the massive arrival of women to the political stage. The wife of the President of France showed political courage and independence never seen among her predecessors. She set a precedence of the empowerment of French first ladies. Even today she is called by some „the eternal indignant”.
Hillary Clinton (USA, 1993 – 2001): „Two for the price of one”
Today we know that Hillary Clinton will not be an astronaut, but she may be the first female president of the United States. Already during two tenures of her husband, Clinton demonstrated that she did not think to stay in the shadow of the White House’s garden. Her involvement in political matters, among others the famous proposition of the Health Care system in 1993, gave rise to controversy and caused discussion about the legitimacy and limits of the first lady’s actions. Be that as it may, Hillary Clinton was one of the most influential first ladies in the history of the United States.
Cristina Kirchner (Argentina, 2003-2007): Square one – being a first lady, square two – being a president
“You only have to fear God, and me, in any case, a little bit.” Although Cristina Kirchner pronounced this sentence when she was the President, already during her husband’s tenure she did not temper her strong character and her will to act on the political stage. Together with Néstor Kirchner, they formed a real “power couple”, he as the president and she as the first lady and a senator, showing to the world that in unity there is strength. In 2007, with an active support of her husband, Cristina Kirchner became the first woman to be popularly elected the President of Argentina.
Michelle Obama (USA, 2008 – 2016): breaking the mold
She was the chief of her husband before he became the chief of the most powerful country in the world. Obamas’ love story started during a summer internship when Michelle, a young lawyer, helped Barack, a new intern.
In 2008 arrives “Yes, we can” and eventually, the victory of Obama. Michelle becomes the first black first lady of the United States. It was not however the only domain in which she has been the first one. Obama has knowingly broken the social protocol imposed to her predecessors, by dancing or making jokes in TV programs in order to promote some causes.
Peng Liyuan (China, 2014- ): When the East discovered the West
In her country she has the rank of the Dean of the People’s Liberation Army, the highest military honor given to a civilian. She sang during three decades for the biggest army in the world, when in 2006 her husband was elected as the leader of the Communist Party. And the ascension of this publicly unknown man to the position of the legitimate leader of the Nation was without doubt possible thanks to the huge popularity of Peng Liyuan. This is an unprecedented situation in the country with a long tradition of the leader’s cult and social and familiar structures in which the masculine domination has been firmly settled for centuries.
The public presence of Liyuan next to her husband assesses that the role of the first lady, in its beginning executed and visible only in the „Western” countries, has been adapted by other cultures and political systems as well, including those criticizing the very idea of a publicly active spouse.
At this point, a reflexion is necessary: are we assisting to the rise of a new political actor of the 21st century? While passing through these ten stories, one could realize the growing influence of first ladies and their office that has been courageously hammered by a group of outstanding women. As the function is spreading worldwide and getting stronger, few are now who would call into question the existing political importance of first ladies. Nevertheless, this recognition leads to a new social debate about the near future of the First Ladyship: from where does the first lady draw her legitimacy? Should her status be legally regulated? Which should be the limits of her actions and should she receive public funds to conduct public projects?
It is said that earlier on, Barack Obama called a great injustice the fact of not paying his wife, because her work of the first lady generated income that could be measurable in millions of dollars. Even if the idea may appear controversial today, it surely will not in some years. And this will be perhaps the next chapter in the history of the First Ladyship.