Melania Trump appears to be a private person. Or, at least, she would be, if she had any privacy.
Everything she does — every gesture, every stray remark — is analyzed, parsed, forced through some kind of political Jell-O mold to see what shape it takes. Various and contradicting personalities are assigned to her: bored trophy wife with expensive habits, sphinx-like operative who holds her cards close, protective hovercraft mom, slacker FLOTUS who owes us a worthy “platform” and maybe a tearful tell-all interview on live TV.
But private is one thing that, for all her privilege, she does not get to be. This is a shame.
She’s stuck with a miserable fishbowl of an unpaid non-job. It’s hard not to suppose that most former first ladies have been wearily glad to see their terms come to an end.
Like most things in our ostensibly egalitarian culture, the rules for political wives and political husbands (still limited in number, but growing) are different. We expect married women in political office to have husbands who, while supportive, don’t have to show up for every event, don’t have to give interviews to women’s magazines about what it’s like to be second banana to the star of the show. They get to have their own lives.
Yet we harbor an anachronistic assumption that political wives have to perform a unique cultural role as combination untitled ambassador, mini-me to the great man, and global exemplar for how American women think, believe, behave. From here, it looks grueling.
There have been disapproving murmurs all around that Mrs. Trump is not playing the role we expect, even while her husband — like it or not — reinvents the rules of the presidency. Why doesn’t she speak up, show up, organize more events, champion more causes, have her picture taken with more orphans and vets and first responders?
The Theory of the Day — well, really, of the Other Day, since the costs of Mrs. Trump’s long-distance commutes pretty much blew other Melania news out of the public goggle-sphere Monday — is that it’s all a quiet show of “radicalism” that might upend our expectations for future first ladies.
“Mrs. Trump may be doing more than any of her predecessors to upend our expectations of the slavish devotion a first lady must display toward her husband,” writes Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.”
Maybe so. But just the fact that the white-glove-and-tea-set title persists even in these “modern” times suggests that there is a set of expectations this role carries — an unreformed throwback to the not-so-olden-days when the the only way for a woman to be recognized as a Big Shot was to be Mrs. Big Shot.
You might argue that some of the most influential and politically collaborative first ladies predate the “modern” White House — Abigail Adams, Sarah Childress Polk, Eleanor Roosevelt. You might also argue that as first lady, Hillary Clinton did not really do her own political career a lot of favors: Less baggage from the FLOTUS years might have made her a more popular candidate.
Impossible to speculate on whether Mrs. Trump is a subtle radical in the White House. But she takes an awful beating from social media critics and other observers who don’t like her husband, don’t like his behavior and positions — as if she were a bundled component of a prepaid package.
We’re in one of those tuned-in cultural moments where women’s voices are being heard: marches and #MeToo, yes, and also the plain demand for fundamental fairness and equity and respect.
Like men, women have a right to be heard. And like men, they have a right to not be heard if they don’t want to be — to be private, to keep their thoughts to themselves. There’s a brand of backlash feminism that demands Melania Trump state her position on her husband’s policies, that she publicly discuss her husband’s alleged personal peccadilloes.
Why? It’s his job — not hers. Her marriage — rock-solid or shaky, happy or otherwise — is her private business. If we really expect a first lady who publicly explains her every move, or who dishes about her feelings, we’re not as grown-up as we pretend to be.
Feminism — if it’s defined in the sense of giving women the same obligations and privileges as everybody else (men) — is not about what your politics are, or who your husband is, or what options you choose in life.
It’s about having those options in the first place.