ELIZABETH DOLE took a leave of absence from the presidency of the American Red Cross last month, to assist her husband, Sen. Bob Dole, in his presidential campaign. Surely she told him, "This is the last time."
A year after they wed in 1975, she had to take a leave of absence from the Federal Trade Commission to assist him in his vice presidential campaign. She went back after he lost that race, but in 1979 she had to resign as commissioner to help the senator in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He lost again, and she soon became Ronald Reagan's secretary of transportation. In 1987 she resigned from the cabinet to help her husband in yet another failed presidential campaign.
Her ups and downs symbolize the problems career wives of her generation have when conflicts of interest arise. But her decision to resume her career outside the White House if her husband is elected president is also symbolic. Not only would that be a new departure in the unique role of "first lady," it would also signal that Americans no longer expect wives to consider their work secondary to their husbands'.
The growth of wives in the work force dictated that this must happen. In 1960 (the year Bob Dole was elected to Congress), fewer than one in four wives worked. Today 60 percent do. That is almost as high a participation rate as single women. In the age group 25-44, more than 70 percent of wives work.
Liddy Dole would not be the first first lady who came to the White House as a successful career woman. Hillary Clinton was a lawyer, like Mrs. Dole. Once in the White House, she chose a different, though important, role as first lady role -- untitled adviser and assistant to the president on substantive political and policy issues. Even that is a relatively new and rare role for first ladies. The role Mrs. Dole foresees for herself as first lady is the next logical step on the eve of the 21st century.