The most interesting question about Melania Trump this past month wasn’t where she was. It was why we cared.
The first lady’s 24-day disappearance ended Monday when she attended a reception at the White House honoring military families. But that’s not likely to stop people talking: The highest-profile spouse in the nation isn’t supposed to drop off the radar for weeks on end. By bucking that trend, she prompted theory after theory about why a woman who had never relished the political spotlight had suddenly decided to go totally dark.
It’s not so unreasonable for the citizenry to expect something from the first lady. As long as she has a staff, from a press secretary to a floral designer, and as long as she has official duties, she ought to show up for work just like the rest of us. Yet even if she wanted to forgo all those trappings, it doesn’t feel like an incoming presidential partner has the choice. Melania Trump’s disappearance may seem like a symptom of a diseased administration, but it also offers the opportunity to find a cure for an illness that plagued the White House well before the Trumps moved in.
Because this country never had a king, the president has become more than a political leader. He has also been an emblem of Americanism, and to play that part he has needed to display the qualities of the consummate American man. The first lady, in turn, has had to epitomize not only American women but also American wives.
That’s why, even as the role of first lady has evolved, it has only done so in tandem with the mainstream understanding of the right way to be a woman. When Lady Bird Johnson “modernized” the role in the 1960s, it meant taking on extra official responsibilities outside hostessing, but still ones that complemented her husband’s job rather than stood apart from it. The “beautification” of America was fitting work for a woman, too.
More recently, Michelle Obama tried to meet expectations by balancing today’s tributes to female independence with traditional first-lady-like devotion. Yes, she spoke her mind, and yes, she boasted all manner of career and educational credentials, but she swore that at her core she was “mom-in-chief.”
Departures from these norms have either been outliers, as in Eleanor Roosevelt’s case, or they’ve been disasters — as with Hillary Clinton’s infamous foray into redesigning the health care system.
It’s difficult to look at the Trumps and see that archetypal American family: We know President Donald Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct at least 16 times, and we know that multiple women say he had affairs with them during his marriage to Melania Trump. So perhaps it’s our anxiety around the collapse of a centuries-old facade that has motivated our hemming and hawing over Melania Trump’s whereabouts.
Yes, many of us who disapprove of Donald Trump like to see Melania Trump snub her husband when she appears with him in public, but we also like to see her, period. When we don’t, a sense of unsettling emptiness nags. A central feature of the American story has been pulled from the page.
But maybe that’s a good thing. The role of “first lady” has become an anachronism. A really modern conception of American womanhood is one where a lady, first or not, can do what she wants. For some, that might mean setting up state dinners, redecorating for Christmas or answering tour requests. For another, it might mean having nothing to do with day-to-day pursuits in the White House at all.
Melania Trump should have been able to forgo those trappings of first ladyhood; any future first lady or gentleman should have the chance, too. The president could appoint someone else to fulfill those duties — whether another member of the president’s family interested in the gig or an unrelated individual with an appropriate skill set.
There’s a lot to hammer out. How much hostessing or hosting is part of the portfolio? To what degree does a spouse who continues working in his or her previous career pitch in? What’s the salary? But it’s worth trying to avoid staying stuck in the past and sticking everyone whose spouse manages to get elected president there with us.