I’ll admit, I squealed like the teenage girl that I was when I shook hands with Michelle Obama at the Xcel Energy Center in 2008 – she smells as nice as she looks, and her skin is as smooth as her dulcet tones. She speaks powerfully in front of a ridiculous number of people, articulates policy positions well and happens to be the nation’s first non-white first lady. And, let’s be honest, it would probably be the highlight of my life if I could have met Eleanor Roosevelt, who endorsed her hubby’s New Deal, fought for civil rights and became an international speaker and politician long after Franklin’s death. Finally, there’s Hillary Clinton, who, despite the public embarrassment caused by Bill’s indiscretions, went on to be a shrewd politician and secretary of state and astounds me with her intelligence and strength.
Are these characteristics of Michelle, Eleanor and Hillary things that I expect from a first lady, or do I merely admire them because I like those qualities in general? Is the spouse of the president just a citizen who happens to have the microphone every now and again, or do I expect the first lady to have strong and well-informed political opinion?
Such questions nagged at me recently when I read a summary of a Sept. 20 interview with Ann Romney. The interview was a reaction to conservatives who harshly critiqued Mitt for his secretly recorded “47 percent” comment.
O. Kay Henderson from Radio Iowa quotes Mrs. Romney: “Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring. […] It is time for all Americans to realize how significant this election is, and how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt’s qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country.”
My uncharitable and Obama-supporting interpretation of these events reads like this: Romney insults half the country and members of his own party point out that this was a bad move. Then Romney’s wife gets frustrated and tells the critics that we should all be grateful to have such a great guy running for president. Her siding with her husband was not a defense so much as an appeal to sympathy. Considering the absurd lack of sympathy that Mitt showed to Americans relying on social services in his comment, Ann’s appeal is hilariously ironic.
That being said, I was uneasy when I perused comments made by blog followers reacting to Mrs. Romney’s comments. The digital responses usually opened with some sort of condescending name directed at a female. They then went on to suggest that not only is her sentiment out of place, but she is somehow not cut out to be a first lady: “Oh, Ann, honey . . . clearly you don’t understand politics. If you can’t handle this criticism during the campaign, neither you nor your husband is cut out for the White House.” Some hidden opinions in comments of this type are: 1 politics are necessarily aggressive and sympathetic words have no place; 2 there is a job description for the first lady; and 3 that job should not primarily involve her speaking from her true feelings and/or loyalty to her husband.
I take issue with these implicit premises. Politics are only as aggressive as we make them. There is no job description for the first spouse. Even if there were a job description, it would probably never ask him/her to no longer feel how an average person would feel about his/her spouse.
Additionally – the feminist in me is itching to ask – how would we read this statement if it were made by the husband of a female candidate? I doubt we would call him “honey” and suggest that he has no place in politics. Politics has been described as a male sphere – women win elections as frequently as men, but they don’t run nearly as often. There are many reasons for this, the most prominent being that women are disillusioned with the overly aggressive polarization that politics involves. I contend that it’s not that more women should act aggressively to get involved, but that the character of politics should stop being so unproductively cutthroat and two-faced.
Disagree with statements made by first ladies or wannabe first ladies all you want – but be mindful of when your bias against them stems from some idea about the “job” of the first lady or gentleman. And, beyond that, rethink the type of political system you perpetuate when you imply that compassionate voices have no place in politics.
Emelia Carroll ’13 firstname.lastname@example.org is from Minneapolis, Minn. She majors in philosophy