The 45th presidency of the United States of America was always going to be one fraught with long-lasting and significant implications for women, whether led by Hillary Rodham Clinton or Donald Trump. Finally having a woman occupy one of the most powerful offices in the world would not only have been potently symbolic, but also materially significant – the direction of policy and the generation of women empowered by a female President would have been impactful for decades to come.
Despite the unfortunate reality of President Trump and all the disturbing consequences that have already followed the instillation of his administration, the next four years need not be a dark cloud without a silver lining. Melania Trump, America’s newest First Lady (FLOTUS), has started her tenure by turning down the role traditionally expected of her. This has relevant, positive, and feminist implications.
A woman is not the man she marries…she has the right to independence
I fully concede that Melania cuts a problematic figure on many levels, from plagiarising Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech, to allegedly aiming to profit from her position in the White House. Even marrying and defending (and loving?) Donald Trump raises questions, for he is an orange insult to humanity and has made history as one of the most outwardly misogynistic, racist, and ill-equipped presidents ever. So, if there is only one positive facet to FLOTUS Melania, why not recognise it? It may be lowering the bar but she’s following Michelle Obama, she was never going to fill those boots anyway.
Melania has turned down the role of FLOTUS, or at least postponed it for six months. She has decided not to move to Washington D.C. with her husband and will be performing a shadow of the role expected of her. Whatever her reasons for making this choice, I applaud them. I also think the importance of this example she is setting has been massively overlooked. Even in Canada, from where I am writing this, a country whose media outlets closely follow the political and cultural developments of its southern neighbour, this topic has been overlooked. There has been significant coverage of the expense her stay in New York as cost American tax payers, due to the extortionate security prices from maintaining separate residences. Of course, this is problematic considering the number of social welfare and health programmes Trump’s administration seems intent on defunding due to ‘financial constraints’, not least Planned Parenthood.
Yet conveniently there is no attention paid to the fact that the First Lady receives no salary and very little appreciation for her work. If you did not know, the President standardly receives $400,000 per annum. Why should any woman sign up for four years of tireless campaigning, traveling, and scrutiny for no wage, just because of the job her husband happens to have? No marriage vows include the promise ‘I will work for free in a job I neither want nor asked for’, at least explicitly anyway.
While no one would consider Melania a twenty-first century feminist icon, she has publicly affirmed something few other First Ladies ever have. A woman is not the man she marries, she is not subject to his decisions and has the right to, and capacity for, independence regarding the course of her own life. She does not have to obediently follow, she need not compromise her own life just because of the professional aspirations, or megalomaniac tendencies, of her husband.
While you might say that compromise is the cornerstone of any relationship, regardless of your gender, I would point to the fact that it is usually the woman of any heterosexual relationship that is expected to make the sacrifices and compromise. Many applauded Bill Clinton’s willingness to take a position secondary to his wife’s should she have won the presidency, First Gentleman remains unprecedented, but did anyone applaud as loudly when Hillary supported Bill through two campaigns and eight years in the Oval Office? It is expected that women will compromise their lives, careers, and aspirations for the sake of their husbands – it is the norm. We are still surprised when a woman refuses to settle, but applaud when a man shoulders the burden of sacrifice.
THE ULTIMATE EMBODIMENT OF FEMINISM IS THE RIGHT TO FREE CHOICE, not for all women to homogenise
Many recognised Michelle’s reluctance to compromise her career to support her husband. Samantha Cameron, in a recent interview with The Sunday Times, admitted that her husband’s role as British Prime Minister had required her to ‘put [her own] life on hold’. Certainly now, with the launch of her own clothing line the tables seemed to have turned but it appears, in this case and many others, that in order for women to have their husband’s sacrifice their career for a while it must always come after a wife has done so first. It appears men have to be indebted to their wives for this compromise to be achieved, whereas women are expected to make such sacrifices based on the prospect of some far away and indefinite return on this sacrifice.
Melania’s opinions on feminism and the role of women may differ vastly from mine – I do not like to presume, but her choice for a spouse would suggest her priorities are a world away from my own. Maybe she wishes to protect her son from the scrutiny living in the White House would bring and is prioritising her role as a mother over her role as a wife, which is hardly burning her bra and throwing herself under the King’s Horse. But who am I to question her position as a feminist? The ultimate embodiment of feminism is the right to free choice, not for all women to homogenise and subscribe to one singular feminist ideal. Melania Trump is making that statement without even a single word, sounds pretty impactful to me.