Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Job With No Paycheck

What are First Ladies for? I suspect that their two most important tasks are to humanize the president and to give us all a nice empty bowl into which we can pour our preconditions, desires and fears about the gender roles in the United States. Hence the need to criticize the softness or hardness of the First Lady candidates in this presidential race, the need to find out if she dares to meddle in men's affairs or not, the need to reassure ourselves (well, for some of us) that he indeed is the boss in that family. Oh, and she is also supposed to be open to fashion critiques.

But in addition to that job, largely not seen as a job, the First Ladies also work quite hard. They have to be present at all those dos, to preside over countless dinners, to attend zillions of events, to travel, to smile, to shake hands, to answer letters and to work on some harmless-looking but oh-so-important-topic which actually isn't going to go anywhere. It's quite a hard job, being the First Lady, you know, with very long hours, a staff and a budget.

So what's the pay for this job, eh? As far as I can ascertain, there is no paycheck at all. None. This doesn't matter in the real-world financial sense, because she gets money from the president, just as all those other little ladies do. Perhaps that's her paycheck? But then she is his employee, not the employee of the whole country. Like a private social secretary and housekeeper and PR person all rolled into one.

Thinking about all this yields some heady feminist analysis, you know. Note that the First Lady is viewed as free labor for the country. The presidents are supposed to come with one, as part of their staff. How she is paid is up to him. What would happen if we got a president with no wife? Would he then be allowed to hire someone for the job and to actually pay the person out of federal funds? Or would we assume that he could do all that and presidenting, without any extra funding?

What all this means for the Obamas is that we view his election as a labor contract between not just Barack Obama and the country but also between Michelle Obama and the country. Yet she is not getting paid, because she is really viewed as part and parcel of him. I'm not sure why everybody feels free to criticize the First Ladies when they are not even paid for the job.