“I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else."
This is how Martha Washington described her life as first lady in a letter to her niece in 1789. Abigail Adams called her time in the Capital a “splendid misery.” And in 2013, in conversation with former First Lady Laura Bush, Michelle Obama joked that life in the White House may at times feel prison-like, but it was a “really nice prison.”
A lot has changed about the role of the first spouse in the last 227 years of the presidency—like how women have property rights, can vote, and no longer wear bonnets on a regular basis—but a few things have not.
The position remains, then as now, a grind and a hustle. And its responsibilities—a combination of statecraft and heavily gendered expectations around homemaking and hostessing—are basically treated like a volunteer shift that lasts between four to eight years.
President Obama receives a salary of $400,000 a year. Michelle Obama, a Harvard-educated former lawyer and executive who leads national initiatives on nutrition and veteran families, travels nationally and internationally as an unofficial ambassador, and keeps an extensive calendar of public appearances, interviews, and other speaking engagements, receives nothing.
But each of the jobs within the job—from non-profit management to event planning—comes with an actual salary range in the world outside the White House.
When Money magazine consulted salary experts in 2016 to come up with a composite number for all of the work the first spouse takes on, they landed on $173,500. As Money noted, the number would have been more than $200,000 if the the lower-compensated (and heavily gendered, I'd add) roles like day care center teacher and licensed professional counselor hadn’t “brought down the overall average.”
It’s hard to imagine this kind of high-profile, government-adjacent position going uncompensated for so long if it was historically held by men.
“The role is based on the lives of upper class women in the late 18th century, 19th century, and early 20th century—when women of means didn't work for pay outside the home and were expected, largely, to play the role of hostess,” Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University and a scholar of first families, told me in a phone interview this week.
“We have a tradition set that this was a job that first spouses were supposed to put all their attention to,” she continued. “But even by the time we get to Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama—high powered lawyers and executives—there was still never any real question that they would put their careers aside for the role of first lady.”
This expectation that a woman with a previously established career would give it up upon entering the White House is just as outdated as the fact that they don't get paid for anything they do under the title of first lady.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a teacher at a private school in New York City. Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson was a radio executive who bought out three men to take over a station in Austin, Texas. Betty Ford was a model and dancer who studied with Martha Graham.
But like Michelle Obama, these women left their careers, either in the early days of their husbands’ entrance into politics or after they won the presidency, to fully devote themselves to the role of first lady. (None of this is to diminish their accomplishments during that tenure—Michelle Obama has transformed national nutrition standards, Lady Bird Johnson's championing of Head Start served as a foundation for the program's present success.)
Laura Bush, when asked in 2014 if the first lady should receive a salary, laughed off the question. “I don’t think so,” she told C-SPAN.
But dismissive as she was at the idea of paying a first spouse for their labor, she did raise the possibility of a future in which it wasn’t just assumed that the first spouse would abandon their career in service of the role.
“The interesting question, really, is not should they receive a salary but should they be able to work for a salary at their job that they might have already had?” she said. “I think that’s what we’ll have to come to terms with.”
She then mused that a “first gentleman” may keep his job. Jellison, like Bush, sees a gender shift—Bill Clinton’s possible return to the White House—as a similar opening to reassess the role.
While there's no doubt that conflicts of interest would emerge in some cases—Bill Clinton has already said he will leave the Clinton Foundation if Hillary wins the presidency, and Michelle Obama resigned from a Walmart-related board around the same time that Barack started his first presidential bid—there's also no good reason the topic hasn't been broached yet.
Except for the blatant sexism—the gendered expectation that of course the women who have historically held the role would leave their jobs to dedicate themselves to their new unpaid tasks.
“There is so much potential for rewriting the rules if Bill Clinton is that first spouse, and it's maybe a sad commentary on our society's values that that potential comes to the fore when a man is possibly going to be in that position,” Jellison said. “It just frees people up to rethink the position altogether without all the gender role baggage, though one can argue that should have happened a long time ago.”