Gentleman’s couture is having a moment this summer, and not because of something amazing happening on the runway. The clothes did not make the man; their spouses did.
After Hillary Clinton’s historic acceptance of the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States, I read no less than five articles talking only about her clothing choices. Yes, Hillary Clinton wore white—as the New York Times, Allure, Vogue, and multiple other news outlets reported—because it is the color of suffragettes. And while that, in itself, is wonderful, there were other stories to be told that night, stories made of a substance other than fabric.
Which is why I was cheekily delighted to see the headlines reporting on Bill Clinton, the potential first First Gentleman, wearing a “fetching pantsuit” to honor his wife’s acceptance of the nomination. The Los Angeles Times took its fashion analysis seriously, talking about his “true blue,” color choice, and comments on the placement and selection of buttons and lapel pins, comparing the ensemble to his previous appearances at the DNC. The First Gentleman nominee would fall, these articles suggest, under the same kind of scrutiny that the First Ladies have been subject to before him.
First Ladies have always had to walk a tightrope. A good wife, a savvy politician, a caring mother and spouse, a tough contender. Veer too far in one direction, and you fall off into the abyss of bad mothers and domineering, shrewish spouses who have undo influence over their husbands. Lest we recall, Hillary Clinton herself had to walk back a comment about choosing to work, “I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession,” inaugurating what was later termed the “mommy wars.” Clinton herself had to indulge the critics, participating in a Family Circle bakeoff with her now famous cookie recipe.
In a society where women have simultaneously been told to “Lean In” at work and at home while being paid 79 cents on the dollar for that work and, as studies have shown, doing an unequal share of the work at home, the First Lady has stood as a symbol for just how difficult it is to do all of these things. Being the First Lady is a full-time job, just like being President, but it is, ironically, one of the highest profile examples of unpaid labor in the world. And yet, each First Lady has done what was traditionally expected of them: left their careers, championed important—yet not specifically political causes—and “stood by their man.”
So what happens if we have a First Gentleman? Specifically, what might it mean if Bill Clinton becomes First Gentleman?
The optimist in me sees this as a unique opportunity that could play out in a couple of different ways, ideally showcasing the give-and-take necessary in a partnership of equals. Bill Clinton, in taking up the role as First Gentleman, would be given the opportunity to create that role, and in doing so, redefine the job of being the spouse of the most powerful politician in the country for both men and women who follow. The role of First Spouse is, by definition, a supporting role, and it certainly has some domestic elements. I, for one, would look forward to seeing Bill Clinton’s selection for White House china. But Hillary Clinton has already talked about outlining a place for him in the creation of economic policy, not putting him in charge of cookie recipes and menu planning. Thus, the role of First Spouse, could be forever altered, and their days of pushing down their qualifications, quitting their jobs, and hiding their true selves would be gone.
The pessimist in me knows that, even if all of these things happen, equality between the positions of First Lady and First Gentleman and the expectations of those taking up those roles may be a long time coming, no matter how feminist Bill Clinton is or the fact our country may have a female President.
But hope springs eternal, and together, you and I can work to make sure we hold our leaders and our country accountable for the conversations it chooses to have about the qualifications for First Spouse. Now, if only we could stop talking so much about what everyone is wearing.