The Big Question: What is the role of a First Lady, and can she have political significance?

Why ask now?

Have you been hibernating? Because page after page of Britain's newspapers are filled with photographs of the soignée Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the former Italian supermodel and new wife of the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is in Britain on a state visit.

Details of her elegant grey Christian Dior outfit, with matching beret, have somewhat overwhelmed her husband's announcement that France will increase its troop numbers in Afghanistan and, in a joint initiative with Britain, to put flesh on the promises made at Gleneagles, put 16 million more African children into school.

She comes from a wealthy Italian industrialist family, speaks five languages fluently, and is said to be well versed in French literature and philosophy. Oh, and there have also been the photographs of her naked, her hands covering her lower modesty, leaving her gamine breasts exposed for maximum tabloid titillation.

Where does the idea come from?

From fairy tales and feudalism. If you have a King you need a Queen; if you have a President you must have a First Lady. The actual expression was first used in America in 1849 when Zachary Taylor, the otherwise unmemorable 12th US President, used the term of Dolley Madison, widow of a president, at her state funeral.

What does a First Lady do?

Anything she likes, according to the present incumbent in the White House, Laura Bush. "The role of First Lady is whatever the First Lady wants it to be," she has said. Over the years, First Ladies have been White House managers, renovators and hostesses. More recently they have been campaigners, social activists and policy advocates.

So they do anything they like?

That's not how they all have seen it. "There is something in this great unsocial house which depresses my spirits beyond expression," said Louisa Adams, wife of President John Quincy Adams, in the 1820s. Her successor, Margaret Taylor (wife of Zac above), was so horrified by the prospect that she "prayed mightily" for her husband to lose the election.

Others have fought shy of acknowledging any public role. "I do not belong to the public," said Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary. "My character is wholly domestic, and the public have nothing to do with it."

Until comparatively recently, First Ladies – like the wives of British prime ministers – saw their primary role as supporting their husbands.

"The major role of the First Lady," said Jackie Kennedy, the wife of the first "modern" US president, in the 1960s, "is to take care of the president so that he can best serve the people." So it has largely continued: "No First Lady need to make apologies for looking out for her husband's personal welfare," said Nancy Reagan. "The First Lady is, first of all, a wife."

But don't they have to be public figures?

Who says so? Look at Mrs Gordon Brown. The one-time PR career girl Sarah Macaulay has all but vanished from the public stage. Unlike her predecessor, Cherie Blair – who tried to be simultaneously a career woman, a private mother and a public hanger on the arm of her husband in his international travels – Sarah Brown stayed at home when her husband went to Camp David. Since her rather nervy appearance at Gordon's side when he arrived in No 10, she has kept herself, and her children, out of camera shot.

There must be more to it than home cooking and buying the right shoes and handbag?

There is the pillow talk. First Ladies have undoubted influence on their husbands, says Rosalynn Carter, wife of President Jimmy, "They talk with them all the time, they have the President's ear. I don't think there is any doubt about it."

Some are blunt about this. "I know what's best for the President. I put him in the White House," said Warren G Harding's wife, Florence. "He does well when he listens to me and poorly when he does not."

Others are more subtle. Laura Bush, a one-time librarian, has particular concerns about Aids, education and Africa. Examine her husband's aid programme and you find that spending on these has increased dramatically.

Others are more direct. Eleanor Roosevelt as First Lady campaigned publicly for human rights, among other things.

But weren't some First Ladies the power behind the throne?

Certainly. Perhaps the most influential American First Lady was Edith Wilson, the second wife of Woodrow Wilson, who after her husband's stroke, took over the White House. She later wrote: "I studied every paper, sent from the different secretaries or senators, and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President.

I myself never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not." Many historians believe this minimises her influence. She has been variously dubbed "the Secret President" and "the first female president of the United States".

Something similar happened in China in the dying years of Mao Tse Tung. His wife, Jiang Qing, who was known as Madame Mao, led the Cultural Revolution and, during the last years of Mao's life, was her husband's "principal aide".

By the time of his death, she and her cronies controlled nearly all of China's institutions with the authority of a virtual empress. A month after he died, she was arrested and accused of attempting to seize power.

At her trial she defended herself, saying famously: "I was Chairman Mao's dog. Whomever he asked me to bite, I bit". She was jailed and 10 years later allegedly hanged herself in a hospital bathroom at the age of 77.

Were none given formal roles?

Hillary Clinton was, for a time, given an official post in her husband Bill's administration developing reforms to the health care system. It was not a great success.

When Néstor Carlos Kirchner was President of Argentina, a few years back, his wife, Cristina, who had been the backbone of her husband's campaign for the presidency in 2003, became an itinerant ambassador for his government. Her style was highly combative, in the manner of a previous First Lady, Eva Perón. Like Perón, she succeeded her husband as president under the title Cristina Elizabet Fernández de Kirchner. Hubby is now Argentina's "First Gentleman".

Are First Ladies an asset to their husbands or their nation?


* They keep their husbands grounded in the reality of daily living

* They input an alternative perspective into high-testosterone politics

* They divert attention from the policy decisions their husbands make


* They are a remnant of time when women were subservient

* Their past can come back to haunt their husband

* They divert attention from the policy decisions their husbands make

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003