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.
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.