Since the dawn of time (or rather the dawn of campaign finance reform), America has been plagued with SuperPACs. From the tautological (“Americans for America”) to the confusing (“Americans for more Rhombus”), to the canine (“I Ride Inside—the Pets against Romney committee,”) PAC names have gotten wilder and weirder. And now one has gotten offensive.
FirstLadyBill.com is the brainchild of Luke Montgomery, the social media marketing activist who last directed “F-bombs for Feminism,” but the feminist credentials of his new project are questionable at best. The front page of the committee’s website features images of a hirsute man in a Bill Clinton bobble-head, wearing a tight red dress. (Blue is understandably avoided.) Next to a close-up of Bill’s furry legs emerging from shiny red pumps are the words “Hillary’s making herstory! I’m filling her shoes as first lady!” In the next picture, Bill’s hairy arms tenderly clutch his purse: “Hillary,” the website announces in block letters “always did ‘wear the pants.’”
Bill the First Lady has been busy. The blog documenting his coast-to-coast campaign tour features photos of bobble-headed Bill grinding his pumps into Donald Trump’s star on Hollywood Boulevard and sporting an American flag bikini on Miami Beach. The website also sells First Lady Bill: The Action Figure, a six-inch “‘strike-a-posable’ plastic president” with a detachable blue purse “that brings out his eyes.”
It seems almost perfunctory to explain what is wrong with this website, but I will risk pedantry to do it anyway. First Lady Bill exemplifies the all-too-familiar tropes that surround female politicians: that their ambition robs them of their femininity and emasculates their husbands. The PAC claims to oppose “rigid gender rules” but its message plays right into them. (The PAC also claims to “put a little more ‘party’ in our political party.” That one they can have.)
But while we’re on the subject of rigid gender rules, let’s discuss for a moment what the job of First Lady actually entails. There is no official job description (since there is no official job), but the roots of the term lie in the role of the White House hostess, an explicitly gendered position. Being married to the president was not a prerequisite. James Buchanan’s niece, Grover Cleveland’s sister, and John Tyler’s daughter all served. The term “First Lady” was first used as a synonym for White House hostess to describe Dolley Madison, an outstanding mistress of ceremonies at White House events under the administrations of both her husband and Thomas Jefferson, whose wife had died by the time he took office. Famous for her feminine charm and for hosting lively dinners, Dolley was eulogized at her funeral in 1849 by then-president Zachary Taylor as “the first lady of our land.” Today, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum refers to her on their website as a “model spouse.”
As the American conception of “model spouse” has evolved, so has the position of First Lady. As Katherine Jellison, the chair of the Department of History at Ohio University and an expert on First Ladies, puts it: “The public no longer expects a First Lady to merely wear a pretty dress and look adoringly at her husband. She is supposed to provide at least some commentary on current events and advance selected public service projects.”
Just to clarify, though, she is definitely still expected to wear a pretty dress and look adoringly at her husband while she does it. The First Lady used to set fashion trends for the Washington social season, but now she sets them for the entire world. When Laura Bush wore an unflattering pantsuit to a meeting with Hillary Clinton, celebrity stylist Philip Bloch said: “Oy vey! Has she never heard of Donna Karan or Calvin Klein? That purple plaid was just begging to be crucified.” When Michelle Obama wore—god forbid—a pair of shorts to climb the Grand Canyon, TODAY ran not one but two articles about her scandalous bare knees entitled “First Lady’s Shorts Drawing Long, Hard Looks,” and “Do You Approve of Michelle Obama’s Shorts?”
Supporting your husband is also nonnegotiable. Laura Bush told the Associated Press: “I would never do anything to undermine my husband’s point of view.” When Dr. Judith Steinberg Dean didn’t campaign for her husband Howard in Iowa because she was too busy saving people’s lives, The New York Times called her “thoroughly disengaged” and “a ghost in his political career.” For good measure, they also said her “worn jeans and old sneakers” made her look like a “crunchy Vermont hippy.”
A modern first lady must be political, but not too political. When Hillary Clinton was assigned to manage a health care reform bill as First Lady, she was widely criticized for overstepping her bounds. Bill Clinton once quipped that if the American people elected him they would get “two for the price of one,” but he faced so much backlash that he immediately abandoned the slogan. The First Ladies who came after Hillary have learned from her mistakes. Laura Bush and Michelle Obama both chose to champion family-oriented causes, with Bush founding “Ready to Read, Ready to Learn” to promote childhood literacy, and Obama starting the “Let’s Move” foundation to combat childhood obesity. Though both organizations have had influences on policy, they still represented the public application of the private sphere. Just look at the official White House biography of Michelle Obama which prefaces her impressive list of academic and career achievements with: “First and foremost, she is Sasha and Malia’s mom.” To further skirt the edge of the political, Obama and Bush both wove their causes into their White House ceremonial duties. Laura Bush expressed her support for U.S. National Parks through themed Christmas decorations, and Michelle Obama promoted healthy living with a “Let’s Go! Let’s Play! Let’s Move!” White House Easter Egg Hunt. Obama has also been both praised and criticized for her “fashion diplomacy,” particularly the red and black gowns she wore during the state visits of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Meanwhile in 2016, as Bill Clinton stumps for Hillary on the campaign trail, “fashion diplomacy” is the last thing on his mind. Clinton’s favorite campaign outfit is a casual yellow polo shirt under a formal suit jacket that makes it look like he forgot his suit pants in the wash. In a photo-op celebrating the birth of his second grandson Aiden, the former president’s blazer looked like it would better fit Chris Christie. Clinton has also been seen in a crewneck sweater with an obscenely large American flag, and a horrifying flannel creation that makes him look like he is about to come fix your porch. And if Bill is serious about making it to the East Wing, his short-shorts will have to go.
What will be Bill Clinton’s depoliticized project as first gentleman? Fighting for early childhood music education by playing his saxophone at public schools? Parlaying his love for Shinola watches into a campaign to support American-made timepieces? Working with White House chefs to make State Dinners vegan? Not even close. Hillary Clinton told voters in Kentucky that Bill would be “in charge of revitalizing the economy, because, you know, he knows how to do it.” She told PEOPLE Magazine: “I’m drawing the line at state dinners, picking out china or floral arrangements, or anything like that.” Chelsea Clinton, too, expressed skepticism at Bill’s design-related abilities: “I’m really happy to leave that to my mother.” Just like the modern American working woman, President Hillary can have it all: all the power and all the housework.
The explanation for this egregious double standard ultimately goes back to the source of the First Lady as a White House Hostess: a gendered role rather than a spousal one. First Gentleman is a very different job. The Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel is married to Joachim Sauer, a quantum chemist at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Sauer rarely appears in public and failed to attend either his wife’s election or her inauguration. Instead, Sauer briefly checked up on the proceedings from his chemistry lab. The press describes him as “his own man” and “a guy who just wants to be recognized as a scientist.” Even a political columnist who initially criticized Sauer for missing his wife’s inauguration came around and wrote “there’s something about that you have to admire.” Somewhere in Vermont Judith Steinberg Dean is banging her head against a wall.
Hillary has faced her own share of criticism for lack of support. In a 1979 interview on Arkansas local television, when Bill Clinton was governor, a reporter asked Hillary: “One gets the impression that you’re not all that interested in state dinners and teas and garden parties, the kind of things we tend to associate with governors’ wives.” In 1992, at a press event at the Chicago Busy Bee Diner, Hillary responded to accusations that her work at the Rose Law Firm had compromised her husband’s impartiality as governor. “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies,” Hillary told reporters, “but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession which I had entered before my husband was in public life.” A media maelstrom ensued. TIME quoted a New Jersey voter who said: “If I ever entertained the idea of voting for Bill Clinton, the smug bitchiness of his wife’s comment has nipped that in the bud.” Hillary responded by heading back to the kitchen. Family Circle magazine generously offered to help Hillary with her new domestic image by pitting her against Barbara Bush in a First Lady bake-off. Hillary’s chocolate-chip cookies took the cake, so to speak, propelling her husband to the presidency. But the male Clinton is no stranger to the spousal bake-off, either. When Hillary ran for President in 2008, Bill lost to Cindy McCain when judges discovered his brown sugar oatmeal cookies were directly plagiarized from the Betty Crocker cookbook. Oh well. First Gentlemen are so helpless in the kitchen.
So perhaps the FirstLadyBill.com SuperPAC isn’t the worst offender when it comes to how we treat our First Ladies and Gentlemen. At the very least, their idiotic campaign has no double standard. The six-inch Bill action figure waits silently in the background, its hair perfectly coiffed, its outfit artfully accessorized, striking its poses and supporting its wife. Maybe someday the President’s spouse will be allowed to keep her job, to dedicate herself to causes that don’t scream “family,” and, every once in a while, to wear shorts. But it can’t start with Bill. So for now, Mr. Clinton, make sure you know who you’re wearing, because your clothes will be doing the talking. And while you’re at it, do the American people a favor and put on some pants.