The First Lady Trap

As someone who has for years half-seriously proposed a constitutional amendment banning public mention of the families of politicians (or alternatively, the establishment of a constitutional monarchy so that we stop expecting the First Family to act as Royals), I am highly sympathetic at the get-go to Jaclyn Friedman’s essay at TAP on the atavistic impact of the quadrennial competition for First Lady. Her argument is that abetting this (relatively recent) tradition of “vetting” the wives of presidential candidates is a factor preventing the advent of a woman as president, aside from the obvious reinforcement of gender stereotypes and patriarchal norms. And on top of everything else, the First Lady meme has an unfortunate effect on how we view their spouses:

If you like someone’s spouse or partner, don’t you like them a little better, too? First Ladies have become the hammer in presidential campaigns’ likability toolbox.

But likeability itself is completely out-of-control as a political factor. I’d much rather have a president who can manage Hillary’s now-cliché 3 a.m. phone call than one who’s fun to have a beer with. The rise of likability as a core metric is inexorably tied to the rise of American anti-intellectualism. And the rise of First Ladies as emissaries of likability brings with it a healthy dose of retro sexism as well—sexism that has consequences even for those of us who’ll never even dream of redecorating the White House.

There’s a lot here to ponder, so check it out. And remember if all else fails we can amend the Constitution.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.