Now that both the Republican and the Democratic Conventions are over, we can all relax and go back to wondering what we should watch this evening. But we are not going back to the same political world that existed a month ago. The Democratic party’s nomination of
Hillary Clinton for President was an historic moment that will change the dynamics of conventions for years to come. But of course the conduct of conventions has changed dramatically over the years.
Two of the most watched speeches of the conventions were those given by Michele Obama, our popular First Lady, and by Melania Trump, who aspires to be a first lady. Our Founding Fathers would be aghast if they knew that candidates wives were actually appearing in public and speaking on behalf of their parties and their husbands.
Like so many other revolutions in American politics, Eleanor Roosevelt was a pioneer in opening the way for wives to speak at nominating conventions. She surprised everyone by appearing on the podium at the 1940 Democratic Convention in Chicago to urge delegates to nominate her husband, Franklin. As the New York Times reported:
“Eight years after her husband shattered the tradition of the non-appearance of Presidential candidates before the conventions which nominated them, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the same hall and on the same platform, established another tonight, the first wife of a President or nominee ever to address a major political party conclave.”
The Times went on to report that the First Lady spoke with unusual gravity, both at the press conference when she arrived in Chicago on a chartered plane, and in the convention hall. Franklin Roosevelt had announced earlier that he did not want to run again, and Eleanor Roosevelt said she was not surprised at this because “I cannot imagine in the present state of the world, why anyone would want to carry such a burden…” Her reaction when told that her own name had been placed in nomination for the Vice Presidency was to laugh and say. “I could imagine nothing more foolish or less wanted.” Her speech, when it came, was forceful and the delegates went on to nominate Franklin Roosevelt by acclamation for an historic third term as President.
Eleanor Roosevelt, like both Michele Obama and Melania Trump this year, could not escape press comments on her clothes. “Her traveling suit was a tailored ensemble of navy cloth coat with long lapels of Eleanor blue, with a soft crepe dress beneath in the same shade. Her hat was a small one of navy straw in a modified beret type…” At least the newspaper did not report on her hair style or the height of the heels of her shoes.
We’ve come a long way since 1940 in the matter of spouses at conventions. This year Bill Clinton spoke as the spouse of a candidate—a first for a man at a convention. I do not
recall any report on his clothes or any comments about who designed his suit. Perhaps the next milestone we should aim for is equal treatment for spouses of all genders at conventions to come. Now that the glass ceiling has been shattered, surely we can break the tradition of judging women by their clothes and men by their words. Let’s see what the 2020 conventions will bring.