Fascinating Things You Didn't Know About Life As The First Lady
First Ladies exist in a kind of political gray area. When you consider what it's like to be First Lady of the United States, you must remember that the position is not a political one. It is largely ceremonial and social in nature. With that said, First Ladies can wield enormous influence both inside and outside the White House. Spouses like Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, for instance, took on the formal role of First Lady while also working on their own favored social causes and furthering their political goals and agendas. And then there's Nancy Reagan, who, in some circles, has long been thought of as a Machiavellian figure that served as the "brains" behind her husband's presidency.
However she chooses to fill her time, there are certain rules the First Lady must follow. These rules are mostly concerned with upholding a specific image of the First Lady as someone supportive of her husband while also passionate about the civic affairs of her country. As a result, the role of First Lady can sometimes be a balancing act between being involved, but not too involved, with issues that affect the presidency and, by extension, the nation.
Keep reading to discover some interesting facts and things you didn't know about the role of United States First Lady.
They Can't Open WindowsVideo: YouTube
In one of the more surprising revelations learned about life in the White House, neither a First Lady nor anyone in the First Family is allowed to open the windows of their home or their vehicle. Obviously, it's a security concern. In an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, Michelle Obama, when she was First Lady, said one of the things she missed most about civilian life was open windows.
"I look forward to getting in a car and rolling down the window and just letting the air hit my face. I mean, I haven’t been in a car with the windows open in about seven years if you can imagine that. So I'm gonna spend that first year just hanging out the window."
They Do Not Receive A Paycheck
Even though their positions are highly public and take them around the world, no First Lady is paid for her work or her time. Their rent and lodgings for the duration of their tenure are paid for, but not much else is. According to Marketplace, "The president and first lady pay for their food, parties, vacations, butlers, housekeepers, ushers… and at Ritz Carleton prices." Ronald Reagan put it another way. "You know, with the First Lady the government gets an employee free," he once said. "They have her just about as busy as they have me."
They Are Expected To Buy Their Own Clothing
No paycheck. An underpaid staff. Not even an open window as far as the eye can see. First Ladies must get free clothing as a perk of the (unpaid) job, right? Nope. First Ladies are expected to buy their own clothes, but for certain significant events, the rule has some wiggle room. "For official events of public or historic significance, such as a state visit, the first lady's clothes may be given as a gift by a designer and accepted on behalf of the U.S. government," Michelle Obama's press secretary said in 2014.
They Get Secret Service NamesPhoto: Nixon Library / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
As a member of the First Family and a constant presence at public events, the First Lady receives the same level of Secret Service protection as her husband. This means that the Secret Service gives her a codename as a way to enhance security and better safeguard her identity. Eleanor Roosevelt was called Rover. Nancy Reagan was Rainbow. Jackie Kennedy was Lace. Pat Nixon was Starlight. Michelle Obama was Renaissance. Melania Trump is Muse.
They Are Discouraged From Getting Too PoliticalVideo: YouTube
A First Lady is first and foremost a figurehead. She handles much of the White House's social calendar, a responsibility that can be a full-time job in and of itself. Yet even though she is arguably the highest-profile woman in the country — if not the world — tradition discourages her from getting too political in her activities. Hillary Clinton was likely the most politically active First Lady in history — a fact that didn't sit well with many. When she tried to revamp healthcare during her tenure, there was heated debate and significant backlash. Americans — and the unspoken rules around the position — seem to prefer First Ladies be accessories to their husbands, not savvy political minds in their own right.
They Can't Accept Every Gift They're GivenPhoto: Government Press Office of Israel / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
You'd think that with her job as a glorified hostess, the First Lady would be lavished with gifts from everyone, from heads of state to admirers in Podunk, USA. And though she might well be offered such gifts, she can't accept every one that is offered. At least not anymore. According to the National First Ladies' Library:
"As the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 ruled, a presidential spouse cannot accept gifts that are valued over a certain amount; all gifts and their values must be declared and are considered property of the US government. In the case of gifts given by friends or close associates, she is given the opportunity to purchase the items by paying the government the estimated value."