Eleanor Roosevelt and the Role of the First Spouse

While this is a historic election for so many reasons, one thing that often isn’t discussed is the potential that a former President may be moving back into the White House to be the first spouse. While there’s talk of Bill Clinton creating a new “role” in the White House, should Hillary Clinton win the election, he wouldn’t be the first. Eleanor Roosevelt, one of Marist College’s most well known neighbors, reinvented the role of the presidential spouse during her time in the White House, according to Val Kill ranger John Foraker.

“She took it to the level that really no one before her had… before her, they were hostesses,” Foraker said.  “She detested that stuff. ”

Eleanor Roosevelt was the first powerful, politically savvy women to challenge that hostess stereotype, and in 2016’s presidential election the role of the presidential spouse could once again evolve in a dramatic way if Hillary Clinton is elected and former President Bill Clinton is the nation’s “first husband.’’

As a result of the partial paralysis of her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, Eleanor had to be FDR’s “eyes, ears and legs in politics,” he said. A park ranger at Val Kill Cottage in Hyde Park, once Eleanor’s private home and now a national park, Foraker has a deep admiration for the former first lady.

In the United States, the role of first lady has always been an important one.  Although the women who play the role have traditionally been seen as party planners and hostesses, Eleanor Roosevelt was the first powerful, politically savvy women to challenge that stereotype, and in 2016’s presidential election the role of the presidential spouse could once again evolve in a dramatic way.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a first lady as “the wife or hostess of the chief executive of a country or jurisdiction,” and many first ladies did not do anything to disprove this definition, choosing to fit into the traditional role.  Roosevelt, however, set a new precedent during her time as first lady.  A political powerhouse of a woman, Eleanor was out “in the field” with the masses much more than her husband was due to his various health problems, which were largely kept secret.

Val Kill Cottage, where former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt spent time away from the hustle and bustle of Washington D.C., is a modest, brown and white house surrounded by sugar maples and pine trees.  Although it is near a busy road, the only sounds that can be heard are the birds in the trees and the wind rustling through the reeds in the pond next to the cottage.  Val Kill looks like it could be any ordinary person’s home, but Roosevelt was far from ordinary.

Besides often being the face of the presidential couple out among the people, Eleanor also fought with extraordinary determination for causes that were important to her.  On one visit to Washington with Franklin, she went “into one of the Navy hospitals, which is considered one of the most deplorable ones that there is… and she basically wages a one-woman war to get this thing cleaned up,” Foraker said.  “The sanitation stuff that she comes up with for that becomes the basis for a lot of the sanitation commissions that are used during World War II,” he added.

However, once she had remedied the Navy hospital’s problems, she was on to other issues because unlike many first ladies who focus on only one cause, she worked hard to change any injustice she could.  According to Franceska Macsali-Urbin, a supervisory park ranger at Val Kill,  “Eleanor was involved in civil rights, poverty, politics… she had an endless interest in many issues that she wanted to address.”

As a result of Roosevelt’s hard work, can-do attitude and support of her husband, she is seen as being the best presidential spouse in history according to a survey performed by the Siena College Research Institute in conjunction with C-SPAN.  The survey of notable scholars and historians is called the “First Ladies Study,” and has been performed five times since its inception in 1982.   Eleanor has been the top ranking first lady every time.

Eleanor Roosevelt shattered many stereotypes during her time in the White House but the presidential spouses that have come after her continue to be held to impossible standards.  They are each expected to fit the mold of the perfect, supportive wife.

However, new changes are on the horizon.  2016’s presidential election marks the first time that one of the final two candidates is a woman, meaning that Hillary Clinton’s husband, former United States President Bill Clinton, would be the first man to fall into the role of the presidential spouse.

The uncharted territory that the Clintons could potentially enter into is similar to the new terrain that the Roosevelts dealt with years ago at the beginning of Franklin’s presidency.  While Eleanor was the first lady to America’s first disabled president, Bill could be the first spouse of America’s first female president and would also be the first presidential spouse to have served as president himself.

Bill Clinton’s status as former president means that he is already familiar with what life in the White House is like, however, if Hillary is elected he will still be thrown into the unknown and will have to adjust to his new position, all while setting the precedent for future “first husbands.”

Some people, like Marist College students Nicholas Tormey and Kara Sweeney, think that Bill may have difficulty with his new role in the supporting position of presidential spouse because of the power that he was accustomed to as president: “because he was president he might have trouble adjusting… he will feel like he has to step up and take an active part in the White House,” Tormey said.

Sweeney voiced a similar opinion: “he’ll be very bossy with what he believes Hillary should or shouldn’t do because he has already done it and he thinks he knows best.  Hillary might not get to run things on her own terms.”

Another Marist College student, Sarah Johnson, has a different view.  “He’ll probably be fine… this is the 21st century, I think men can get over being emasculated because they’re not in the highest position of power,” she said.  Hopefully, Bill will be able to step up and accept his new role as a supportive “first husband” with the grace that has been demonstrated by first ladies if Hillary is elected president.

However, if he keeps Eleanor Roosevelt in mind as an excellent example of a groundbreaking presidential spouse, Bill should be able to find his new place in the White House if Hillary is elected.  In addition to finding his place, the Clintons could set a standard for future presidential couples that would help to solidify the legacy of teamwork and cooperation that was started by the Roosevelts.  

“Future presidential spouses will be part of a team effort, Eleanor and Franklin worked together as a team… that’s how a lot of future first couples could work together,” Macsali-Urbin said.  “The spouse might be out there in the country and relay back information because the president has so many things that they have to address, hopefully it will be a team where one can talk to a person and give their honest opinion.”

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