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January 9, 2012

(First) Ladies in Waiting

It’s customary for the U.S. first lady to be portrayed as a “lady in waiting.”  At a recent holiday photo event, Michelle Obama kept her distance from public policy discussion, waiting for her husband as he conferred with his assistant for legislative affairs. By now she is well aware that a presidential spouse’s job (ostensibly) is to wait patiently in the background while the president conducts affairs of state, but in this photo Mrs. Obama also invokes the mood of some in the Democratic base as well—waiting for the president to take action.

Obama could probably offer tips to the spouses of Republican presidential hopefuls—most of whom wait for the White House like the characters from Samuel Beckett’s play waited for Godot.  Callista Gingrich was spotted shortly before the Iowa Caucus sporting the requisite “adoring gaze” as she watched Newt prepare for an interview in an Iowa pub.

The stalwart support of his (most recent) wife was not enough to boost Newt’s performance in Iowa. Although this image of Newt is fairly mundane campaign trail fodder, it does reveal the persistence of gender norms in presidential campaigns. In addition to his loving (younger, blonder) wife, Newt is flanked by the cartoonish image of the barmaid, serving up a round of drinks to weary (wary?) voters. After Newt’s performance in Iowa, he probably needed one!

Mary Kaye Huntsman’s quizzical expression ironically sums up the reaction that many people have to Huntsman’s candidacy. Why is he still talking? Like a good political spouse, however, she waits.

Meanwhile, U.S. voters are waiting for a candidate they could get excited about voting for. That is likely to be the longest wait of all.

– Karrin Anderson

(photo 1: Pete Souza / The White House via WAPO. caption: Dec. 15, 2011  “Interrupting a Christmas holiday photo line, the president confers with Rob Nabors, assistant to the president for legislative affairs, about the latest developments in the payroll tax cut extension as the first lady waits in the background.”  photo 2: Andrew Burton/Getty Images. caption: JANUARY 01: Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich waits to begin a live broadcast interview as his wife Callista Gingrich looks on at West Towne Pub on January 1, 2012 in Ames, Iowa. The GOP presidential contenders are crisscrossing Iowa in the final stretch of campaigning in the state before the caucus on January 3, the first test the candidates must face before becoming the Republican presidential nominee. photo 3: Alex Wong/Getty Images. caption: JANUARY 05: Republican presidential hopeful and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman (L) answers questions from reporters as his wife Mary Kaye (R) looks on from inside their vehicle after he spoke to local business owners at a business lunch January 5, 2012 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Huntsman, who skipped the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday, continued to campaign for the upcoming, first in the nation primary election in New Hampshire.)

  • bks

    The GOP position on marriage: One Man, One High-Maintenance Blonde.


    • Karen H

      maybe one high-maintenance blonde and one high-maintenance man (as opposed to a high maintenance man who probably wouldn’t attract the blonde but could be useful around the house when sober)?

  • Momly

    I saw the picture of Michelle Obama already and my take away was that she was waiting but also VERY interested in what was being talked about. My husband is a pastor and when a parishoner comes up to him and speaks softly or in an urgent manner, my radar pings.  I will be asking later what it was was about knowing I may or may not get an answer – depending on confidentiality.

    I also wondered how much influence Mrs. Obama has when the President can confide in her.

  • Janis Edwards

    You are being so hepful. I am assigning my grad students in Gender and Political Comm to study First Ladies/Spouses this term. You are giving them an idea I can use when classes begin Thursday.

  • robert e

    Also striking in that White House photo is Mrs. O’s affinity with the christmas tree, as if herself an ornament or wrapped gift. That is the other role of First Lady isn’t it? Along some spectrum of beautiful/glamorous to matronly/motherly, a president’s wife is expected to embody one or more idealizations of American Woman, to a much further degree it seems than demanded of male presidents and masculine ideals. Though god forbid either project any hint of sex or sexuality.

  • Caraf

    The crossed legs and playing-with-fingernails hand position really get me here. Very un-Michelle. She looks like she’s waiting around to talk to the cute boy in the hallway at school. 

    • Momly

      Interesting Caraf…… I wonder if she is unconsciously competing with the office of the Presidency for her husband’s attention. I imagine she will be the most relieved person in America once Obama leaves – even more so than his detractors!

      I often wonder how many sleepless nights she has had concerning his safety….

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