The role of first lady of the United States is one of the most visible public positions in the world. From the moment votes are counted, and often during campaigning in the preceding months, the spouse of a newly elected president is thrust into the spotlight, where she remains for the duration of his term.
Throughout history, we've witnessed the breadth and depth of scrutiny withstood by the women who have so far held the position. From her mannerisms, to her physical attributes, to the way she chooses to dress, the first lady is thoroughly examined by the public, the media and those surrounding her on the political stage. And this is even before people begin assessing the work she is expected to carry out as an unpaid, unofficial public servant.
Many a first lady has felt the warm glow of public adoration, only to have it quickly flicker out when it is decided that she does not fit the image created for her.
Image, in this case, isn't just about clothing and looks, but also a more nuanced notion of the impression she's thought to give off. It's an air around her that is made of both physical and personal traits. And a number of first ladies have fallen victim to aspects of their image that have been both celebrated and weaponized, depending on the onlooking crowd.
In "First Ladies," a documentary series now airing on CNN, we see this paradox play out during six presidencies. The stories offer an ongoing reminder that a woman's public image is inextricably linked to her success and the level of respect she receives from the outside world.
So, why do critical voices repeatedly pass such undeserved judgment on these women? Leah Wright Rigueur, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, offers her answer early in an episode about Michelle Obama: First ladies are meant to be the "representation of American's better selves."
When Americans elected their first Black president in 2008, the country's first Black first lady Michelle Obama was, to many adoring fans, a symbol of hope, opportunity and change. Girls and women around the world looked up to this smart, determined woman from Chicago's South Side who now lived in America's most famous house.
But her critics had a different take on her conviction and strength of character, and they were not afraid to make their often racist and sexist ideas known. On the campaign trail she was labeled "angry," and her love and loyalty for America was questioned.
During the first few months of the Obama presidency her preference for sleeveless looks also drew extraordinary criticism. It was a phenomenon recalled by Robin Givhan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion editor and critic-at-large for the Washington Post, during an interview for "First Ladies."
"People zeroed in on her arms because they were not the arms of a fragile damsel who was White," she said in the episode about Obama. "Non-White Americans have for years looked at a White first lady and were still able to say that she represented them. But I think it becomes a much more challenging thing for some White Americans to look at a Black first lady and see themselves in her. Instead, they simply saw her as an alien."
By way of contrast, Jackie Kennedy had been mostly idolized for her beauty and style. While she did face flak from critics on the campaign trail for her expensive taste, from the moment she took to the stage on inauguration day in her now-iconic pillbox hat, Kennedy became the First Lady of Fashion. At age 31 -- young enough to be the daughter of the departing Mamie Eisenhower -- she was also seen as a symbol of youthful rejuvenation. She appeared on Capitol Hill for her husband's inauguration like "the gorgeous petal in a dowdy bouquet of fur," wrote historian Thurston Clarke in his 2004 book "Ask Not."
And as journalist Evan Thomas notes during an interview for the CNN series, she "was the perfect prize of the WASP establishment."
"She also knew that the Kennedy family was using her," Thomas added. "She once said, 'the family treats me like, like a thing. Like an asset. Like Rhode Island.'"
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