The nature of the 2016 Democratic National Convention is historic. It will be the first time a woman secures a presidential nomination from a major political party in the United States.
But there will be another person making a certain kind of history this week: Bill Clinton.
The former president is speaking tonight in an approximation of the keynote spot usually reserved for the future first lady. The speech is among many highly anticipated speeches from a star-studded lineup. But more than that, it is the first time such a speech has been given by a man.
It’s odd to talk about Bill making history in this way when his wife's achievement will surely be so much more significant to history than his.
But the less-talked-about part of changing achievement for women in high-achieving roles is how they change family dynamics at home. That means the roles of their spouses need to change as well.
If we are to have a woman president — this time, or at any point in the future — we will have to let go of the traditional idea of the first lady. It’s mostly taken on such a prominent role in part because of outdated ideas about marriage. As marriage evolves, the role of first spouse should evolve too.
The complicated history of the first lady's role
Historically, the first lady was thought to be little more than "feminine window dressing to the office of the presidency," wrote Robert P. Watson, a former US representative and commentator, in the 2000 book The Presidents’ Wives: Reassessing the Office of the First Lady.
Some historical first ladies have gotten political. Watson credits Edith Wilson with softening President Woodrow Wilson’s position on women’s suffrage, and Eleanor Roosevelt was a famously action-oriented first lady. But they are the exception, not the rule. The role didn’t evolve much until women began agitating for equal rights following the 1960s and '70s. Indeed, Betty Ford used the position to advocate for the now-dead Equal Rights Amendment.
But there is little doubt among historians that the role of the first lady changed the most with Hillary Clinton herself. While campaigning, Hillary Clinton became part of a "two for the price of one" campaign slogan. In the Clinton household, she was the main breadwinner, graduated from Yale Law School, and had a résumé just as impressive as her husband’s. The trouble was she wasn’t the one running for office.
Hillary Clinton found the first lady role to be challenging. She seemed to resent the "window dressing" role she would be asked to take on. Indeed, while her husband was governor of Arkansas, she continued her work as an attorney — an unusual move at the time.
She defended her decision to continue working, famously telling Time magazine she could have "stayed home, baked cookies and had teas" but opted to continue her professional career.
The magazine heard from women who derided the "smug bitchiness" of that quote or complained that women who stay home "hardly have the time" for cookie baking. But the quote didn’t really capture Hillary’s point; as Time magazine confessed last year, there was another half to the quote: "The work that I have done as a professional, a public advocate, has been aimed … to assure that women can make the choices, whether it’s full-time career, full-time motherhood or some combination."
The evolving nature of the dual-earning household
The Clintons’ shifting gender roles within their marriage reflect larger societal shifts at play. The number of dual-earning households has skyrocketed in the past few decades, reaching 60 percent of all households in 2010. The number of father-only employed households was 31 percent. This is essentially the reverse ratio of what it was in 1960.
With changing dynamics in family earners come new questions about the proper role of spouses in politics.
Michelle Obama, who met her husband at a prestigious law school and was the primary household earner when Barack Obama ran for office, not unlike the Clintons, opted to quit her job as a hospital administrator when he ran for president. This was the cause of much debate that re-exposed the rift over the proper role of women who hold prestigious jobs and also happen to be married to high-profile politicians. Similarly, Heidi Cruz took leave from her high-powered job at Goldman Sachs while Ted Cruz ran for president.
Realistically, Obama couldn’t have kept her job as a hospital administrator in Chicago while her husband ran the country from Washington — but even if she had, critics would have lobbed countless questions about her influence over her husband as he pushed through one of the largest structural changes to America’s health care system in decades.
These questions are only likely to get more complicated, not less. The types of high-achieving individuals who tend to seek the presidency often marry other ambitious individuals — and that creates complicated questions about whether one can be "corrupted" by the professional job of one’s spouse. Unfortunately, the work of too many professional women creates a liability when it comes to the highest achievement in public policy.
It will be tempting, should Hillary Clinton make it to the White House, to write off her husband's policy ambitions as unusual because he also once held the job of president. He won’t be expected to come up with a docile volunteer-based policy agenda for children or families, as other former first spouses have. But it becomes difficult to separate whether that is because of Bill Clinton’s former job or because Bill Clinton is a man — and men of powerful working women are often expected to have their own careers rather than play a supporting role for their wives.
The first spouse role is actually a job
Much like the stay-at-home mom debate, the thing about the first lady role is that it has all the trappings of a job. Women often have their own policy offices, give speeches, push for legislation, and greet dignitaries. The only crucial difference is that, much as it seems inappropriate to the American public for the first lady to work as a lobbyist or attorney in DC, it also seems inappropriate to pay her for her time and skills.
Only two presidents in all of history — James Buchanan and Grover Cleveland — were unmarried when they were elected to the White House. Though there’s certainly no modern equivalent of this, one presumes that the duties of the first lady would either simply be fulfilled by paid staff (choosing china patterns) or gone unfulfilled (posing for White House photos and greeting dignitaries).
This means that first ladyism occupies a strange place where it is not necessary, per se, but it certainly encompasses a lot of duties useful to the head of state. This is not unlike other powerful CEOs, senators, and other officials — there is simply a lot of labor involved with being the spouse of a powerful individual that doesn’t count as paid work but is incredibly useful to the success of the individual.
In recent decades, the campaign role of the future first lady has become more and more intense. Potential first ladies are asked to campaign on behalf of their husbands and often have some of their own policy ideas — but not too prominent or controversial ones.
Melania Trump, who has more or less chosen to opt out of this campaign spouse role through the primary, was (arguably unfairly, given her lack of experience doing so) given a high-profile speaking slot on the first night of the Republican National Convention. But up until that point, it was really Ivanka Trump, Trump's daughter, who had typically taken on the role of the campaign spouse.
Here’s the thing: There’s no good reason for the spouse of someone running for president to take on such a prominent role in the campaign. It’s only become more of a tradition because politicians often marry other similarly skilled politicians and campaigns have sometimes taken advantage of that skill set to support the candidate.
The awkwardness about what the changing nature of this role means when a man takes hold of it is evident in how we talk about it. Thus far, the most high-profile conversation about Bill as first spouse has simply been that Hillary Clinton, an avid fan of HGTV, has insisted that she’s interested in continuing to pick out flowers and china patterns should she make it to the White House.
It’s clear from that question that Bill Clinton’s first spouse role won’t follow the mold of first ladies of the past. But perhaps it’s time for us to dispense with the notion of the traditional first lady anyway.
If we’re ready to start reimagining the gender politics of what it takes to be president, we must be ready to reexamine what it means to be the president’s spouse.
Correction: This article has been edited to clarify presidential marriage status. Chester Arthur was also a bachelor when he became president, but he succeeded James Garfield after assassination, and Woodrow Wilson was widowed for a time in the White House.