10 rules the first lady is expected to follow

First ladies are often tasked with choosing the annual holiday decoration theme 

Chelsea Ritschel
New York
Saturday 30 January 2021 08:26
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Related video: First Lady thanks educators on first day in White House

First Lady Jill Biden has already made history in her new role, after announcing her intention to continue teaching during her time in the White House, which will make her the first first lady to hold a paid job outside of the executive mansion.

According to Dr Biden, she made the decision after considering the responsibilities she took on during her eight years as second lady, which included teaching full-time as a community college English professor.

"I’m really looking forward to being first lady and doing the things that [I did] as second lady, carrying on with military families and education and free community college, cancer [the Biden Cancer Initiative], that Joe and I have both worked on," Dr Biden told Stephen Colbert in December, a month before Joe Biden was sworn in as president. "And I’m going to teach as well."

While Dr Biden is skirting the historically held precedent for first ladies, there are other strange rules that she is expected to follow in her role as first lady.  

From choosing a theme for the annual White House Christmas decorations to strict guidelines around accepting gifts from designers, these are some of the rules Dr Biden will be expected to follow over the next four years.

Decorating only parts of the White House  

Upon moving into the White House, the first family is allowed to redecorate the personal living spaces in the executive mansion, which is often done with the help of a hand-picked interior designer.

However, only some rooms of the house can be changed, as other rooms are considered “historic rooms”, according to Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies, who told ABC: “Some parts are essentially historic rooms and belong to the American people, not to the families who live there.”

If a first family wanted to change these rooms, which include the Lincoln Bedroom or public spaces on the grounds, they must first consult the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

Overseeing Christmas decor  

First ladies are also usually tasked with choosing a theme and overseeing the annual holiday decorations at the White House, which typically include dozens of Christmas trees and oversized gingerbread houses.  

The tradition, which former first lady Melania Trump criticised during her time in the White House, was started by former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who chose the “Nutcracker Suite” for the theme of the Blue Room tree in 1961.

Hosting the annual Easter egg roll and Hanukkah

Christmas isn’t the only holiday celebrated at the White House, as the first families also host celebrations for Easter, which includes the annual Easter egg roll, and Hanukkah.  

First ladies are often in charge of planning Easter celebrations

Typically, hosting duties for these events are given to the first ladies, who the National Museum of American History describes as “hostesses for the nation and the presidential administrations”.

Hosting White House state dinners

When foreign leaders visit the White House, the executive mansion often hosts a formal state dinner, which the White House Historical Association describes as “one of the grandest and most glamorous of White House affairs”.

The planning of these events also typically falls upon the first lady, according to the historical association, which notes: “The first lady and her staff are responsible for the elaborate planning and attention behind the glitter and ceremony of the state dinner”.

Organising for the event includes everything from creating the guest list to choosing the menus, table settings and seating arrangements.

Opening windows is off-limits  

One of the more unusual rules of living in the White House has to do with windows, which, according to former First Lady Michelle Obama, must remain closed.

“In the White House you can’t open a window. Sasha opened her window once – there were calls. ‘Shut the window!’ It never opened again,” Ms Obama previously revealed to Oprah Winfrey.  

Casual shopping trips are a thing of the past  

While speaking to Ms Winfrey, Ms Obama also revealed that taking a trip to Target was another thing she was excited to do when she left the White House, as the security risk kept her from doing so when she was first lady.

“I do want to drop into Target. I want to – I do, I want to go to Target again!” she said at the time. “I’ve heard so many things have changed in Target!  I tell my friends they’re going to have to give me a re-entry training for like, okay, what do you do at CVS now?  How do you check out? It’s like I’ve been living in a cave.”

Choosing a cause to champion

First ladies typically choose to focus on a cause that is important to them during their time in the White House, with Ms Trump choosing her initiative Be Best, while Ms Obama created the Let’s Move! initiative as well as the Let Girls Learn initiative.  

There are rules around fashion  

As part of the most important family in the United States, it is not surprising that the clothes worn by the first lady are significant in their own right, with first ladies often becoming fashion icons during their time in the White House.

To help them dress for the role, first ladies often enlist the help of stylists, who can work with designers to select outfits.

However, when it comes to whether they get to keep the actual clothes, the rules are strict, as first ladies can wear a gifted designer outfit as long as they wear it just once and donate it after.

If a first lady or the president decides to purchase a designer item, they are expected to pay for it themselves at full price.

They can’t accept just any gift given to them

Previously, first families could not accept gifts from foreign governments and foreign officials without the consent of Congress, after which they were allowed to keep the presents.

However, these gifts are now handled by the National Archives and Records Administration.

Gifts from anyone other than foreign officials are fine, however, with the first family allowed to keep the gifts as long as they do not pose a safety threat.

They are expected to invite the future first lady for a White House tour

One of the most time-honoured traditions for the first lady involves inviting their successor to the White House for a tour after an election.

First ladies are expected to invite their successors for a White House tour

Ms Trump infamously chose to skip the tradition when she and her husband left the White House.  

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