First Ladies, Past and Future

April 05, 1992

Lawyer Hillary Clinton's controversial remark that she could have stayed home, baking cookies, was made during a discussion of what kind of a First Lady she would be. It is a discussion that often is distorted by too much awareness of history and not enough awareness of present-day reality.

History. The phrase "First Lady" was coined before the Civil War. It was appropriate then as now since wives of presidents served primarily as White House hostesses and, on occasion, as high visibility advocates of a particular good cause. First Ladies have traditionally come to the White House with no careers of their own. Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan, for example, fit that description.

Even the more activist, independent first ladies of the past -- Rosalynn Carter, Eleanor Roosevelt -- were some form of helpmates first and advisers second. And in their pre-White House lives they were primarily homemakers. Giving teas and baking cookies, so to speak.

Present-day reality. In 1947, the year Hillary Rodham was born, 18 percent of married women were in the labor force. Today 51 percent are. Among baby boomers like Hillary Rodham Clinton, the figure is 70 percent. Since Barbara Pierce married George Bush in 1945, the proportion of working women with young children (the Clintons have an 11-year-old daughter) has increased five-fold. Today the growth rate for women in the labor force is double the rate for men.

Most women in the work force are still in relatively low paying jobs. But 10 percent of working women are executives, administrators or managers. That compares to 13.3 percent for men. Among professionals, the figures are 14.4 percent for women and 11.6 percent for men. Most women in high-pay, high-prestige positions are, like Hillary Clinton, married to men in similar occupations -- the professional, managerial occupations that produce presidents. The Clintons are more typical than you might think.

So it is probable if not inevitable that the type of First Lady Americans can expect in the future is going to be different. We may not have Hillary Clinton in our future, but we sure have her type. (Marilyn Quayle?) The trends all point toward a day soon when the wife of the president will have her own business and professional responsibilities, which may or may not leave her much time for being a "First Lady" in the old sense. For that matter, the same trends point to a day when that will be true of the husband of the president.

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