Women in politics are constantly being observed. We care about what they say, what they wear, who they’re supporting, where they’re vacationing and why they chose to dedicate their lives to public service. For the wives of politicians, life is especially difficult. Not only must they maintain a flawless personal appearance, but they must also be their partner’s biggest cheerleader. They must be humble, yet confident; demure, not sexy; delicate, yet strong; and intelligent, not cunning.
They must balance upon the fine line of public opinion without faltering.
The First Lady of the United States is in a particularly difficult position. Not only must she abide by the standards of the women who came before her, but she must also set precedent for those to come. Specifically, in regards to fashion, the FLOTUS is automatically an icon. What she wears to a casual tea with the German Prime Minister will be broadcast on the front pages of every tabloid on the planet. If she is flawless, she will be praised. If her stylist had an artistic breakdown, she will be ridiculed.
A color choice can signal benevolence or animosity. Given the right shoes, as Marilyn Monroe once recommended, she rules the world.
However, although it may seem romantic to sway public opinion with a hat selection, it is important to understand what it means to have this kind of power. As the FLOTUS, you are never given a day off. You must be flawless in every capacity—and even if you do achieve perfection, many people will still critique you. Regardless of your entrepreneurial, collegiate, philanthropic or intellectual pursuits, people will remember what you wore, not what you achieved.
Your accomplishments will follow you like a faithful entourage at the Oscars. Your gown will always steal the show, not your multiple degrees from Ivy League institutions.
Take Michelle Obama: a successful wife, mother, lawyer and advocate for social change. She is a highly skilled and accomplished woman. She is well-respected in many circles and was a successful woman long before she tied the knot with the future President of the United States. But what do we care about? What does the fashion industry care about? What she wore. The things that she did as First Lady received praise, but not our full attention. Do we look into the specifics of her health initiatives, or do we care about the purple dress she wore to meet Melania Trump? Do we care about the number of cases she won as a successful attorney? Or do we pay attention to how she decided to wear her hair on a particular Thursday?
And how are we judging the future First Lady, Melania Trump? Do we care about her potential? Do we care about her diplomatic potential as a woman who can speak five languages? No, we care that she once posed nude for a magazine. We care that she was a former model. We care that she wore a “pussy bow” after her husband’s comments about sexual assault. We care that she is tall, thin and attractive. We care more about her fashion sense than her business acumen.
The incredibly successful women who stand with their husbands are critiqued like posh accessories at a Christie’s auction.
So what should change? We need to rethink what it means to be a woman in politics. It should not mean that the FLOTUS’s primary duty is to dress well or be physically fit. She should be able to wear what she thinks best suits her without the world providing a plethora of inputs. She should be able to come in any shape or size. We should not judge male politicians on the attractiveness of their wives. She should be acknowledged for her intellectual accomplishments as a man would. She should not be called a bitch if she doesn’t smile, a whore if her hemline is a quarter-inch too short or a prude if she chooses to be simple and conservative.
The glass ceiling remains. Look how they treated Hillary Clinton, look how they treat Michelle Obama, look how they are beginning to treat Melania Trump. Yes, there are many differences between men and women. But a woman’s place is in the House, Senate and White House. She should not have to make her way to the top by flashing a smile, effortlessly accessorizing or sweating away 3000 calories at the gym. She should get there because she is capable and persistent. If a poor suit decision can’t ruin a man’s career, then a fashion statement shouldn’t ruin a woman’s.
Collegian writer Nataleah Small can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NataleahJoy. Leave a comment!!