This has not been the best of weeks for me, primarily because I had a fall early in the week, at home, of course, where so many falls take place. While I’ve been fretting over my aching muscles and experimenting with how to get my meals ready without putting too much strain on my sore leg, I haven’t had much time to think about a blog post.
Then I read an article about Melania Trump in the New York Times which set my mind to considering a subject I wrote about the changing roles of first ladies back in 2016.
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 roles in politics.
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…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.
Time has moved on since 2016, although Melania Trump, still gets many comments on her clothes and even on the height of her heels, other changes are being made. Our new first lady chooses not to be completely buried in the shadow of her husband any more than Eleanor Roosevelt or Michele Obama were. She has chosen a different route to independence. She did not move into the White House immediately after the inauguration, and she has chosen not to appear with her husband or travel with him as often as most other first ladies have done. Instead she pursues her own interests and has not been a fierce political supporter.
I urge you to read Kate Andersen Brower’s column “The Quiet Radicalism of Melania Trump” and think about the changes that are coming to the First Lady role in American politics. Sometimes long lasting changes occur without our even noticing. And sometimes they are made by the people we would least expect to make them.
The Golden Globe awards ceremony last weekend was raised far above its usual status as just another awards show by the dramatic way the women participants coordinated their costumes. All of the women wore black dresses, some starkly black from top to bottom, others relieved by a touch of gold or color. But the overwhelming effect was of a crowd of beautiful women wearing the most dramatic color possible for women’s clothing—black.
The Golden Globe display was, of course, in support of the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements protesting sexual harassment and assault. Many of the women who spoke at the event mentioned the prevalence of sex discrimination in the entertainment industry and urged both men and women to protest against it.
As a follow-up to that successful display, several Democratic Congresswomen are planning to wear black to President Trump’s first State of the Union speech on January 30. Whether others will follow their lead remains to be seen.
Will any of this matter? Are we at a turning point for relations between women and men? It will be a long time before we know for sure. The history of women’s demands for fair treatment has not been a happy one. Generations of American women fought for women’s right to vote—from 1848 until 1920 the struggle continued. Hundreds of women and then their daughters and granddaughters argued, wrote pamphlets, and demonstrated in an effort to convince men they should have the right to vote. By the time the women won, most of the early supporters had died.
And the movement to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prompted long and vigorous struggle that has not yet been successful. You can read the full story of how the amendment was proposed and how close it came to passing at the excellent website at http://www.equalrightsamendment.org/
When the ERA went to the states for ratification in 1972, it looked as though it would be speedily accepted. During the first year, 22 states ratified the bill, but then the backlash
gained strength. Phyllis Schlafly was one of the bill’s fiercest critics saying that it “would lead to women being drafted by the military and to public unisex bathrooms“. Well, now we have unisex bathrooms in many public buildings and neither men nor women face a military draft, but the amendment is no longer an active item on the agenda. Will it ever be revived?
Why do women’s campaigns so often seem to fail or to take an inordinately long time to be accepted? It reminds me of the line from the World War I poem by Shaemas O Sheel “They went forth to battle, but they always fell.” Will the movement to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace also fail, or perhaps take a century to win? Women can’t change things by themselves; men have to understand the issues too. Social change is never easy, but at least there are some clues about how it happens.
It begins with education, early education before attitudes are congealed into rigid patterns. Perhaps we could start by not encouraging children to view life as a battle, or a football game, with winners and losers. Sports play a surprisingly large part in American education—more than in any other country. Children quickly learn about winning and losing, but not so often about working with one another and cooperating on projects.
By the time young people become sexually active, many of them have decided that sex is a competitive sport. A boy who “scores” thinks himself victorious and the girl is often shamed as a loser. Boys and men feed their power by forcing females to submit to their desires. Instead of being about intimacy, sex becomes a matter of exerting power and winning. It’s time for educators and parents to think more about what they are teaching boys and girls and how it will affect their futures.
As for grown men—better late than never. They can still learn to treat women with fairness and respect. It will be a long struggle, but at least the women in black have made a start.