clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

I endured the spotlight as first lady of South Carolina. Here’s my advice to Melania Trump.

President Trump at the Freedom Ball Ball in Washington, D. C. Photo by Kevin Dietsch - Pool/Getty Images

It takes a certain type of individual to run for office these days — one who enjoys the limelight. But what does this age mean for the political spouse, especially for one new to the political world, like Melania Trump? We know very little about Melania, and already much has been made of her decision not to move into the White House this month.

While I have not served as first lady of the United States, I have managed political campaigns, served as first lady of South Carolina from 2003 to 2010, and left a husband with presidential ambitions after his infidelity was revealed first to me and then to the rest of the world. On the eve of the Trump inauguration, I share my thoughts on the role of first lady (or first spouse) and the challenges and triumphs that can accompany such a life.

The first lady’s role is unique in its dependence solely on the elected position of her spouse. I think of it as a job with no formal rules but many expectations. It comes with a “free” house and staff and a host of responsibilities and customs. It doesn’t pay a penny, but you can’t get fired (unless you leave or divorce as I did). The moment the election is won, half of your state (or nation, in the case of Melania) detests you by virtue of the man to whom you are married. I received hate mail, occasionally sneers in public, and sometimes a treat — like a loogie — in letters addressed to me.

Of course, I also had fan mail and many invites or requests to speak, often too voluminous to handle. The positive that comes with the job is awe-inspiring, but nothing really prepared me for the negativity. My sons could tell instantly in their new school which kids came from families of the opposite party just by virtue of the way they treated them: kindly or derisively. Reporters and political operatives are on the hunt from the get-go for any misstep to be used against a politician, and the spouse and family are fair game too. Sensationalism and smut sells, and they’re digging for it from the politician and anyone close to him. Election Day brings power to the winning politician and ignites the battle to strip him of that power.

Remember: Women may marry men, but they don’t have to become them

For the entire term served, every action of the first lady is subject to harsh criticism. The spouse is supportive of her husband in his pursuit, and yet for an independent woman like myself, it can prove a very difficult life to adjust to. As a congressional spouse, I was raising my sons mostly on my own with the occasional flicker of attention, but no spotlight per se. I was free to wash out a son’s mouth with soap in the bathroom of a restaurant if he used bad language and then go on with our lives. I wouldn’t think of doing so as first lady, however, for fear of the public backlash.

I gave up many of my business and charitable pursuits so I could accommodate the demands, privilege, and adventure rolled up in the public political life. I accepted all that came with the life, but it was not always easy. I consider myself a private person, and, unlike my spouse, I would not have chosen that life except for my support of him. Melania married a real estate and reality TV mogul, but that does not mean she too desires life in the partisan glare. Women may marry men, but they don’t have to become them.

It is hard not to feel special with the pomp and circumstance of an inauguration and the welcome to a glorious abode, the people’s home. And then you wake up and cannot find the light switch, your 5 am-nightgown-coffee routine is watched on security cameras, news clips are filled with chatter about your attire, and every moment of your day has been scheduled by the handlers who now seem to know what’s important for you.

Jenny Sanford stands next to Mark Sanford as he is sworn in for his second term as governor of South Carolina in 2007. Their four sons also participate in the swearing-in.
AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain, File

Moving my four sons in the middle of the school year was disruptive, more difficult for some than for others. My oldest, 10 at the time (the same age as Barron Trump), promptly asserted he was never having friends to “this house” because they wanted to see the house, not him. Within weeks of moving in, the fire department was called to open the stalled elevator door to rescue our 4-year-old. The headlines for this brave son were bigger than any I would thereafter get for health initiatives as first lady.

We lived in a gated community of one, a museum house on tour daily, with four little bulls in the proverbial china shop. Much of our life there was filled with people, though lacking community; secure and yet constantly on guard for the piranha-like press; ever busy and often lonely; privileged and picked apart; and always feted and parading. An adventure for sure, while raising a family all the same. I applaud Melania for considering what is right for her son Barron in choosing not to uproot him in the middle of the school year. Each situation is unique, and a first lady must decide to do what is right for her family, considering the whole picture and her family goals.

Women have many roles, even simultaneously. We are mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, friends, workers, and caregivers. As first lady, new roles can include hostess, manager of a historic home, champion of causes, and, most importantly, protector of the values and ideals of her family. A first lady is invited to many glamorous events, asked to speak more than she is able, and called upon to make many decisions daily, all important, and often with a sense of urgency. The challenge lies in knowing how to balance the many roles she has, and which ones are more important to her, not to her spouse’s administration or agenda. Political urgency should not replace her authenticity or trample upon her personal goals.

You will encounter criticism at every turn, and constant praise too, so don’t take any of it too seriously

My advice to Melania Trump: More than anything else, as you enter the position of first lady, know who you are, and (if you are a person of faith) remember whose you are. I routinely prayed or spent time quietly before I spoke publicly or interviewed the press, to ensure that my words were consistent with my faith and values. Your place in history is there to make of it what you wish. While doing so, remain centered in your deepest self and do what is right for you. You will encounter criticism at every turn, and constant praise too, so don’t take any of it too seriously.

Politicians can become hollowed out by today’s process, emptied of value or empathy, but you did not choose to be a politician, so don’t let that happen to you. Don’t get too busy as first lady that you forget your friends or family back home. Remain close to your friends: Laugh and pray with them, and thank them for keeping you real. Guard your values and your family, as they are what remain when the time in office is over.

Be open to the possibilities of the role, the ability to touch lives, to meet new people, absorb endless opportunities. I will never forget the people who thanked me for visiting a hospital or school or those who were inspired positively by something I said. When faced with crises, dig deep within and prayerfully connect with your best self as you weather your storms.

Be respectful of the honor due the title of first lady, but remember it is a title, a temporary role, and never who you are before or after the term. You can make a difference in many ways, but the real legacy will be in how you live, how you treat others, and in the character instilled in those you leave behind. I mean no disrespect to the honor of the position, but I am happier than ever back in private life with time to enjoy those I love, to cook in my own kitchen, to sing while driving alone, to speak freely, to love deeply, and to just be me. Soak up the adventure, and when your time as first lady has ended, a glorious life awaits.

Jenny Sanford is a former investment banker and campaign manager who served as first lady of South Carolina from 2003 to 2010. Published in 2010, her memoir, Staying True, was an instant national best-seller. Long active in philanthropic and community endeavors, Jenny lives in South Carolina and also works in business consulting while enjoying the company of her four young men.

First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.