I had never thought much about what role a first lady should play in our society, Kenya had not had one for 24 years and so it was not a major issue. However, over the past 2 years, Kenya has been involved in a nascent debate on what a first lady should and should not do. This issue has been brought to the fro due to Lucy Kibaki's outspokenness and willingness to defend her husband.
Personally, I have never thought much about the Rucy intrigues, however, in the past week a number of events have conspired to force me to look into the issue. First was palaver's commentary on Lucy being a president: http://www.eastandard.net/archives/cl/hm_news/news.php?articleid=14904&date=8/3/2005
. This was followed by a hisorychannel program on the Role Edith Wilson played when her husband fell ill. The last draw was an A&E program on the role first ladies have played in American politics, over the 20th century: "20th Century with Mike Wallace: First Ladies"
The latter show profiled the first ladies and the roles they played, from Eleanor Roosevelt, to Hillary Clinton. From the program, one can see that the first ladies had a variety of styles and attitudes towards their roles as first ladies. There were those who were very active in the political scene: Eleanor rosebud, Betty Ford and Hillary Clinton, to those who were subdued and removed from the political scene: Elizabeth "Bess" Truman and Marie "Mamie" Eisenhower.
The program raised a number of issues, principal among which is whether there exists an ideal role for a first lady. Should a first lady focus being a housewife, entertaining dignitaries and being involved with non controversial charity work (e.g Jackie Kennedy) or can she be involved in the rough and tumble world of politics and public policy?
Many would argue that since she is unelected and unappointed, she hould focus on the former role, that is do charity work, and raise awareness on non controversial issues (e.g AIDS or Education like Lucy Kibaki). My major concern is that though these issues are oncontrovesial, they are still public policy issues, I therefore, see no reason to constrain the first ladies field of involvement. Unless we want to relegate her to the role of FIRST MBOCH.
Moreover, let us bare in mind that a first lady comes to the position with various inerests; there are those issues that she feels strongly about and has partcipated in prior to being first lady and would in all probability want to continue to persue those interests. A good example would be Betty Ford's participation in the Women's movement and her support for the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights (contrary to her husband's party's point of view). Should she have foresaken her inerests and abandoned them at the gates of the White House? I think not. We can not expect first ladies (nor anyone at that) to abandon there beliefs and interests, just because they are in a new position. Humans are not vacuums that can be evacuated at one's whim.
The reatonship between the president and the first lady, can also not change at a whim. The first couple will typically have an already established working relationship. They first lady may play a supportive role, not involved in an of her husbands business (e.g. Marie Eisenhower), or may play a behind the scenes role like Nancy Reagan, where she would act as a confidant and advisor to the president. Or be a partner, like Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Clinton, who were overtly involved in policy matters and advising their husbands (Carter actually attendend cabinet meetings). All these roles were developed prior to the couples occupancy of the white house, and had worked for them to that point. Can we trully expect them to foresake those routines that have enabled their marriages to survive the tumuts of politics, when they arrive at the state house? I shudder to think what that would do to the stability of their relatonships, and let us remember, the president is both a public and private individual, what happens at home will affect what happens in the office.
Finally, we can not expect the first lady to sit quietly in the corner, as her husband is being attacked or maligned by his political enemies. Last year during the election cycle, first lady Laura Bush would constantly voice her disapproval at those who were attacking the president's credibility, on Iraq and other issues. Hillary Clinton coined the term: "Vast Right Wing Conspiracy" in response to the impeachment of her husband. And Lucy Kibaki has been callin for the resignation of those dissatified with her husband's work etc. It is a first ladies right, indeed I would argue responsibility, to come to the defence of her husband. I see nothing wrong with that.
From the brief look at the first ladies of the 20th century, it is clear to me that the role of the first lady , depends on the occupant of that office. There is not concrete role that a first lady can play, and in most cases the holder of the office, decides what she her role should be. However, one role that all have played (and future first ladies/husbands) is that of confidant and advisor, a president will always need a supportive mate to bounce ideas off or seek solace from. Let us remember that we do not elect only the public man/woman to the office of president, we elect his/her private self as well, and the first mate is part and parcel of the whole individual.
This article on Nation appeared after I had first published the above, but has similar sentiments. I did not plagaize it: http://www.nationmedia.com/dailynation/nmgcontententry.asp?category_id=25&newsid=44760