An American Gender Icon
by Julie Brown UTSA & Clement Giffard Angers
Gender is the range of characteristics that differentiates masculinity and femininity. In most societies, there is a basic division between the gender attributes that are assigned to males and females, a gender binary to which most people adhere and which enforces the conformance to ideals of masculinity and femininity. A gender icon then, would be someone or something that is widely recognized as portraying the attributes and ideals which a society has come to expect of that gender.
The First Lady of the United States has become an important American gender icon through the years. Interestingly, it is not because each one who has held that position has been the same, but because they have each been so different. The First Lady is a position traditionally held by the wife of the President of the United States, but it has never been codified or even officially defined. It is neither an office nor a job description and is lacking any Constitutional backing. The First Lady receives no salary and has no official duty, but is expected to be the hostess of the White House.
The responsibilities of the First Lady have come to include: involvement in political campaigns, management of the White House, and championship of social causes. The First Lady acts as a representative of her husband in ceremonies and receptions both at home and abroad, and as such, is closely watched for hints of her husband’s intentions. She is generally expected to extend good will and bolster the President’s public image.
The role of the First Lady is one that is continually evolving. It depends much on individual personalities of the women and how they interpret the role. The role is often defined by the audience to which the First Lady is playing – elite or popular, foreign or domestic. Additionally, there are constraints placed upon her role from an accumulation of precedents set by former First Ladies.
In recent decades the role of the First Lady has become more professional in nature as societal norms about women in general have changed. To be just a social hostess in the White House is not enough anymore. It has come to be expected for the First Lady to be well-educated and well-informed. She is also expected to be well-dressed, and it is common for her designer of choice to be public knowledge.
Many First Ladies have taken on a specific social cause to champion. Some examples from recent decades are: Nancy Reagan and the “Just Say No to Drugs” campaign, Barbara Bush with reading and the “No Child Left Behind” campaign, and Michelle Obama who has tackled childhood obesity. The hard work of these First Ladies has led to important social change and has led indirectly to changes in policy at the local and federal levels.
The role of the First Lady of the United States has become more iconic with the advent of greater media technology. Not only does the First Lady get attention as the wife of the President of the United States, but often she attracts attention on her own merits. As a very visible public figure, she is looked up to and emulated by many American girls and women. Her role has become a very difficult one to fulfil since she must assume a dual identity of a feminine, loyal companion on one hand and a strong, educated, independent woman on the other. However, as difficult as this role may seem now, the near future will reveal how this iconic role might change forever, if the American people are faced with a female president and a First Husband in the White House.