No matter how conflicted you feel about Valentine’s Day, and whether or not it should be abolished once and for all, it was hard to not to let out a collective and audible “dawww” when we woke up to the news that First Lady Dr. Jill Biden had accessorized the front lawn of the White House with giant hearts etched with gentle words like “kindness,” “unity” and “compassion.”
According to reports, the surprise was installed during the wee hours of the morning because it’s the First Lady’s favorite holiday and, according to her spokesperson, “this is her Valentine to the country.”
While this delightful love-stunt was a welcome mental health pit stop on the way to much more distressing news of the day, which would be former President Donald Trump’s lawyers refusing to acknowledge that the current sitting president did in fact win the election, it also left me befuddled.
Why are first ladies, especially the ones with distinctly separate and thriving careers, still expected to decorate the damn White House? More importantly, can we make Second Gentlemen Doug Emhoff do it instead?
Why are first ladies, especially the ones with distinctly separate and thriving careers, still expected to decorate the damn White House?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for an enthralling V-Day surprise and get a lot of satisfaction from our first couple showing basic signs of affection for each other after four whole years of former first lady Melania Trump treating her husband’s hand with the same level of intimacy she would show a public payphone in a pandemic.
But just because the first lady can brighten up our moods with ostentatious yet tasteful holiday-themed decor, it doesn’t mean she should have to. Every first lady, even the ones with law degrees and the ones who were busy creating universal health care plans, have had to succumb to these gender normative expectations. The tradition needs to be at least questioned, if not completely re-evaluated.
In 1992, when then first lady Hillary Clinton questioned the sexist limiting role she was being wedged into as a woman with her infamous baking cookies retort, the blowback was so pervasive it was portrayed as a jab at housewives everywhere, and more bafflingly, an attack on women.
Even when Clinton was the first lady of Arkansas, she was scrutinized for having ambitions beyond being president of the party committee.
Even when Clinton was the first lady of Arkansas, she was scrutinized for having ambitions beyond being president of the party committee. “One gets the impression that you’re not all that interested in state dinners and teas and garden parties, the kinds of things we tend to associate with governors’ wives,” a local news reporter asked her in 1979.
More than 40 years later, what has changed? Again, there’s nothing wrong with being skilled at jazzing up the White House for parties and national holidays, but it should be an all-genders-on-deck kind of activity.
While not enough has changed for women, one noteworthy evolution is Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband, Emhoff. For the very first time in history, we have a man in a supportive spousal role in the White House, which has inflamed those for whom masculinity is more fragile than Trump’s lawyers’ impeachment trial defense.
Emhoff’s enthusiasm about becoming second gentleman has already been labelled “emasculating” by some, but he seems like a man secure enough to lean in and give us the full gender role makeover. Plus, we know he has style.
Emhoff has already broken the mold; why doesn’t he shatter the second gentlemen glass ceiling and just lead the party committee already? While we need more men in supportive roles, their presence in leadership positions in traditional female work is a crucial part of the recipe for equality too. Besides, it’s not like women have a natural knack for holiday decorations — isn’t that right Melania?