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Michelle Obama and Ann Romney are prominently featured in their spouse’s presidential campaigns. Both have made prime-time speeches during the Tampa and Charlotte conventions, which were parsed in detail by the media. Did they make their husbands more likeable? Could they secure the “women’s vote” for their spouses?  Were their televised speeches fluff pieces, or did they convey meaningful insights? And inevitably, were they dressed right? How did their hair look? Appearance is always an issue where women are concerned.

It must be awfully daunting to know that millions of people are watching as you open your personal life to very public scrutiny. But really, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.  If your husband is elected, you cannot remain a private citizen moving anonymously through your day. You will have an official title, give interviews, hire staff and run your own office from the East Wing of the White House. If you were employed or pursuing your own career, you will probably stop to devote the next four years to work for your country. You will raise your children in the public eye, plan state dinners, host visits from foreign dignitaries, preside over White House events. Whatever you do, wherever you go, however  you look, you will be the subject of exhaustive comment. That’s a lot to ask of a person under any circumstances.

Public life requires sacrifice, and so does marriage, parenthood and lots of other relationships. But the First Spouse is in a unique situation – her time, her energy, her efforts and her name become appropriated to the purposes of her husband’s Administration, yet she is not compensated for her work. In the case of Mrs. Obama, the six figure income she used to receive as an attorney and hospital administrator is gone. But she’s working harder than ever, covering miles in travel every week, meeting a dismaying range of people, flying the flag for the U.S. all over the world. And all for free.

Her office is full of over-achieving, high functioning staffers. According to Wikipedia, she is the boss of:

  • Chief of Staff and two deputies
  • Communications Director and a deputy
  • Press Secretary
  • Deputy Director of Policy and Projects
  • Director of Scheduling and Advance, one deputy and a special assistant
  • Legal Counsel to the First Lady
  • Social Secretary and three deputies

The best paying positions earn about $172,000, but most are closer to $100,000, according to public documents. And the First Lady  herself? Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nothing. Nada. The empty set, a goose egg, and so on.

For years, if your husband was a U.S. Ambassador, you set up residence abroad, became the official hostess, handled myriad public engagements, and the assumption was you were happy to facilitate your husband’s career and benefit from his compensation. The same went for military wives. It was as if  loving the person who was  paid meant you were compensated too – yet unmarried representatives of the country or members of the armed forces did not have their pay reduced because they were single. The value added by a spouse  goes entirely unpaid for, unaccounted for and disappears.

Upon marriage, a wife retains her individual identity now. Most households with children have all adults in the paid workforce, and in many cases, economic needs demand it. Women now are better educated than men. Assessing the value of their labor is not rocket science. Their employment is essential to the national welfare and the financial security of their households. It would be unthinkable to send a woman out to work and simply not compensate her because she was married. Yet that is exactly what we expect of the First Lady.

If a woman were President, would her husband be expected to be on the cover of magazines, interviewed on television, manage a staff and a hefty budget, have a public life, preside over official functions and interact with the most powerful leaders of the world, for free? I doubt it. Either compensate the First Spouse or  release him or her from the expectation of a public role. Anything else, quite frankly, is stealing.

‘Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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