The tradition of the First Lady taking up a social cause during her time in office developed from Dolley Madison’s role as a hostess at the White House while her husband James was president more than 200 years ago. After the recent presidential election, we have a new First Lady, Melania Trump, along with the new president. We have also lost a vital role model in Michelle Obama – a dignified and caring woman who, while not all agreed with her, always carried herself with respect.
On the campaign trail, Melania shied away from cameras and speeches. She hosted a few fundraisers, but that is quite different from making appeals to the general public, and she rarely gave public testimonials. We all remember her catastrophe of a speech at the Republican national convention, when she appropriated large chunks of text from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech at the Democratic convention. As CNN reported: “Melania Trump’s speech was warmly received by the rowdy Republican crowd but did not include behind-the-scenes glimpses of life in Trump Tower or other details that might offer some insight into the man behind the image.”
The lack of such details in the speech was an early indicator of Melania’s current image as a reluctant presidential spouse. In Donald Trump’s first month and a half in office, she is much more seen than heard. She makes rare appearances at his major speeches but is never leading events of her own. She has, however, apparently decided what her cause will be as First Lady: She will work vigilantly to end cyber-bullying.
While this choice is amusing considering her husband’s behavior on social media, Melania has committed herself to fight, for children across the country, against a problem that is currently beyond effective control by parents and school administrators. More generally, she says she will focus on women’s and children’s issues. Although Melania has yet to begin doing much on these issues, Ivanka Trump has stepped up to fulfill many duties of the First Lady – attending state events, hosting dignitaries at the White House, and serving as a role model figure for young girls who one day hope to experience corporate success of their own.
Melania also proclaimed that she wants to revive the legacies of Jackie Kennedy and Betty Ford, both of whom were very “traditional” first ladies. Now, Melania may be too young to remember Kennedy and Ford, but they were far from traditional – these women laid the foundation for the active first ladies of the past two decades. The most recent first ladies adopted active roles in their position to take on national healthcare, education, and childhood obesity. Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michele Obama heralded a new type of First Lady who uses her position of power in the press and the eyes of the citizens to do good.
Melania will probably not make any impact against cyber-bullying if she continues to lack a substantive presence in the public eye. If she continues to shy away from speeches, hides away in Trump Tower, and refuses to manage her own image and only promotes President Trump’s, Melania will fade into obscurity as she sits next to the most powerful man in the country.