Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About The Role Of The First Lady

The public's overwhelming fascination with the first lady of the United States pre-dates our current love affair with everything related to Michelle Obama. Just ask historians about the importance of Eleanor Roosevelt or Jackie Kennedy.

And this Friday, the U.S. will have a new first lady. As President-elect Donald Trump assumes his new role, his wife Melania will officially take on the role of FLOTUS — even if she plans to stay in New York for the time being.

So this is as good a time as any to answer all your burning questions about her new position: What are Melania's official responsibilities? Has the office of the first lady always functioned this way? And hey, are we paying for her clothes?

Read on and find out.
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How did the role of first lady came to be?


Martha Washington is considered to be the first "first lady," but the term wasn't used until after her death. Her main function was to play hostess for social events, and she set the standard for the subsequent first ladies.

The role has historically been reserved for the president's spouse, but some first ladies have not been married to POTUS. Emily Donelson took over the hostessing duties during the presidency of her uncle Andrew Jackson, a widow. Harriet Lane did the same during the administration of James Buchanan, who never married.

However, our contemporary understanding of the role can be traced back to Eleanor Roosevelt, according to Dr. Katherine Jellison, chair of the history department at Ohio University, who has studied extensively the topic of first ladies.

During her time at the White House, Roosevelt expanded her duties beyond just being a hostess, spending her time working on social reform projects.

"She is the first first lady to have press conferences, she is the first first lady to have a significant number of staff working for her," Jellinson said. "She is the one who made the role of first lady as high profile as it is today."

What are some of the first lady's responsibilities?


Contemporary first ladies are expected to perform public and ceremonial duties. While they've always hosted state dinners and other official events, now they also serve as surrogates to their husbands' administrations, taking on particular social projects or causes.

Michelle Obama, for example, spent a lot of time working on the issues of childhood obesity, girls' education, and military families. Laura Bush championed education efforts, and Hillary Clinton focused on health initiatives and women's equality.

But first ladies didn't always focus on children and women's initiatives.

Eleanor Roosevelt was dedicated to African-American civil rights, according to Jellison. Jackie Kennedy focused on historical preservation of architectural treasures, while Lady Bird Johnson championed the environment.

But Jellinson argues there was a shift toward women's and children's causes during the Nixon administration — and it's stuck. It's unclear if the role will shift again with future first ladies — or dare we say, a future first gentleman.
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Okay, but they need money to champion their causes. How much do they earn?


Not a cent. Because they're not elected officials and the role is considered an "office of honor," the first lady position is unpaid. Yes, the job certainly comes with some perks, such as a house, personal security detail, and a pension. But you still have to consider that first ladies have given up well-remunerated jobs in order to perform her public and ceremonial duties, and are in the spotlight basically 24/7 just by virtue of being married to the president.

It's no surprise then that first lady Pat Nixon called it "the hardest unpaid job in the world."

Even President Ronald Reagan made note of just how hard his wife, Nancy, worked in 1982, "You know, with the first lady the government gets an employee free; they have her just about as busy as they have me."

The first lady's office does have a federal budget however, thanks to a 1978 law signed by President Jimmy Carter. This made it much easier for first ladies to funnel resources into social causes.

It was also during the Carter administration that the first lady acquired a particular workspace in the White House: the East Wing. His wife Rosalyn Carter was the first to officially call it "The Office of the First Lady."

It's important to note however, that Hillary Clinton broke tradition and moved her office to the West Wing, which caused a lot of controversy at the time. She is the only first lady to do so.

The FLOTUS office employs a staff of around 15, even though that number has gone up and down over time. And her personnel makes way less than the president's staff.

The first lady goes to so many events, though. Does she at least have a clothing or styling allowance?


First ladies have traditionally paid for everything out of pocket.

It was something that took first lady Laura Bush by surprise when she assumed the role in 2001.

"I was amazed by the sheer number of designer clothes that I was expected to buy, like the women before me, to meet the fashion expectations for a first lady," she wrote in her memoir. "After our first year in the White House, our accountant said to George [W. Bush)], 'It costs a lot to be president,' and he was referring mainly to my clothes."

She also used to pay for a stylist to blow-dry her hair in the mornings "just so I could try to avoid a bad hair day."

In the case of Michelle Obama, it was reported that she also buys her clothes out of pocket, except for special occasions.

"For official events of public or historic significance, such as a state visit, the first lady's clothes may be given as a gift by a designer and accepted on behalf of the U.S. government," her press secretary, Joanna Rosholm, told the AP in 2014. "They are then stored by the National Archives."

Now that Melania Trump will be first lady, do we know how she will approach the role?


Kind of. During a rare public speech in early November, Melania said that as first lady she would take on combating cyberbullying and harassment as her main cause.

"We have to find a better way to talk to each other, disagree with each other, to respect each other," she said at the time. "We must find better ways to honor and support the basic goodness of our children, especially in social media."

But we will have to wait how she takes on the role and makes it her own during the next four years.
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