The First Lady’s Role – Lost in Transatlantic Translation

Unlike our American neighbours, the role that Prime Ministers’ wives play in British politics remains relatively minor. Though ‘SamCam fever’ momentarily gripped the nation, with lifestyle magazines running copious editorials on Samantha Cameron as an example of the ideal modern woman, the Prime Minister’s wife is usually only discussed in the event of scandal (remember Cheriegate), imminent motherhood or (occasionally), as a result of their own professional successes.

However, over the last fortnight the West has observed how markedly different the American First Lady’s role is compared to the shadowy image of the UK PMs’ other halves. As an alien onlooker taking stock of both the Republican and Democratic conventions, I found myself captivated, yet initially bemused by the keynote roles reserved for both Michelle Obama and Ann Romney. Both women closed the opening nights of their respective conventions, tasked with highlighting the core values that make their husbands tick from dawn till dusk. The electorate sat absorbed, listening to tales of young love and economic hardship, ranging from meals eaten on folded down ironing boards, to high school dances, to dates in old, rusted cars.

While the wife’s role throughout US electoral history has been to reassure the American public of their husband’s integrity and values, in recent years the First Ladies in waiting have also weighed in on political projects of their own, outlining their own personal values to the American electorate through their convention speeches. While Ann Romney discussed her Welsh coalmining roots, her history battling MS and breast cancer as well as her experience raising five children, Michelle Obama described her upbringing in a family that fought to send her to college, just about making the tuition fee bills month by month to keep her there.

While the speeches taught us a little more about the women behind the men on the ballot sheet, they also displayed campaign tactics from behind the scenes moving into play. The personal experiences outlined in the wives’ speeches were, in fact, an amalgamation of their husbands’ policies and vision for the country’s future. While the First Lady is undoubtedly still charged with serving as a bright beacon of American femininity, she also serves an important political function. This year in particular, the wives have acted as a medium, communicating directly to the electorate the seedlings of experience that helped define their husbands’ world vision and beliefs.

Indeed, Michelle Obama explained how the President’s signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Law (guaranteeing equal pay for equal work) had been inspired by his grandmother, who worked for years in mid-level positions at the same bank, struggling to compete with her male contemporaries for promotions. In turn, Ann Romney connected Mitt Romney’s experience working long, difficult hours at the formation of Bain Capital to her husband’s passion for building businesses from the ground up. The anecdotes serve to cement otherwise abstract political policy and embed a sense of integrity. They also highlight the candidates’ potential to re-create personal experience on the national stage.

While it can appear narcissistic for an individual to recount his own hard-fought successes, having your spouse express pride in your achievements acts as the ultimate stamp of approval. However successful or intelligent the wives are in their own right, their emotionally charged speeches unleash images of homeliness and family values with an exceptional figure at the head. Most importantly, they are charged with portraying an image of masculinity that women are attracted to and men admire.

In a campaign season where women’s issues have often overshadowed the debate over the US economy, no two women’s voices have mattered more than the candidates’ wives. Ann Romney discussed the importance of family, and women struggling to spend time with their children because of the difficult economy, while Michelle Obama pointedly echoed the pro-choice arguments of her husband amid the recent debate over definitions of rape and the legality of abortion.

Commentators argue that the campaigns use the candidates’ wives speeches to appeal specifically to women, directing their focus onto women’s issues and using an emotional tone to sway on-the-fence female voters. Yet it seems somewhat closed-minded to assume women voters, who make up half of the electorate, need to be addressed by anybody other than the candidate himself. To designate the role of securing the female vote to the wives, who however well informed do not themselves have political experience has the potential to sideline the importance of women’s issues in the run-up to the campaign.

Yet despite these reservations, it is true that Ann Romney and Michelle Obama may hold the key to the female vote with a recent survey noting how 56% of women voters would take perceptions of the candidates’ wife into account when electing a President. However, it appears the candidates’ wives are also important to men, with a similar number of likely male voters expressing this view.

While it is right to admire two women who have taken to a national platform to advocate for their husbands, it is important to recognise the level of power illegitimately held by the candidates’ wives at this stage of electoral campaigns. Only a small fraction of elected male and female senators and congress members were given a speaking platform at the conventions and it appears baffling that the unelected First Ladies in waiting gain this privilege. While there is no doubt these women know the candidates better than almost anyone else, it is important to ask why a family endorsement is necessary at all when choosing the next President. After all, for any other job application, a family reference would be far from acceptable!

So while Michelle Obama and Ann Romney have been gifted powerful platforms in US politics, a platform that in Hillary Clinton’s case ultimately led her to run for President and appointment as Secretary of State, there is still an archaic, almost monarchist element to the concept of the First Lady, tasked with smiling ever so sweetly at the camera, (or in Michelle’s case challenging popular chat show host, Ellen DeGeneres to a round of push-ups to demonstrate her all-round charm and perfection). However, while the candidates’ wives will continue to be focused on as the light-hearted element of this Presidential race, providing life and colour to what the majority view as a mass of grey, it is important to remember that they remain unelected, inexperienced but powerful political weapons, with a significant role to play in dictating the course of this November’s electoral proceedings.