The Power of First Ladies

They say that behind every man there is a great woman. A lot of the time, however, it seems that these women attract even more attention than their husbands. Earlier this month, a fifth book on Brigitte Macron was published, which reached number one on Amazon France. Across the Atlantic, Michelle Obama’s autobiography has topped bestseller lists since it was published late in 2018.

She also surpassed Hillary Clinton to claim the top spot on December’s Gallup poll of the ‘Most Admired Woman’ in the USA, following in a long line incumbent of previous First Ladies who have topped the list every year since its creation in 1948 (excluding a couple for Mother Theresa and Margaret Thatcher). First Ladies, and their international counterparts, have been drawing headlines, admiration, and their fair share of scandal too.

According to the anti-Macron press, the book is merely an attempt to humanise a President who is notoriously out of touch with the public, at a time when his ratings are at an all-time low. Regardless of the motivations for its writing, this calls into question the power of the spouses of world leaders in general. Having such unrestrained influence over a President, Prime Minister, or other leader, doesn’t seem democratically viable for an unelected individual. However, I would argue that this isn’t the greatest power of these women. That, in fact, lies in their celebrity.

Where does this celebrity status come from? Perhaps in the eyes of the public they take on the role of a modern-day princesses, especially in countries without a monarchy such as France and the US. This would be an easy way to explain why the husbands of world leaders, who are few and far between, are generally left to themselves – just think about Philip May Joachim Sauer (husband of Angela Merkel).

On the other hand, often this celebrity status is cultivated and used as a political weapon. In 2008, here in the UK, David Cameron inherited a Tory party sorely lacking in female representation, with only 17 female MPs and poor track record on women’s policy. However, with him came Samantha Cameron, or Sam Cam. She fulfilled the role as perfect wife: feminine, supportive, childbearing. 

The British press embraced her with open arms. Although never overtly political, she nevertheless took on a very public role in campaigning and has been heralded as salvaging the party’s image in regard to women. Clearly, she was a great electoral asset to her husband. 

The attention these women receive, however, is a double-edged sword. Their place in the spotlight means they can end up being a target for political enemies of their spouse. In 2016, the Trump and Cruz campaigns used the supposed sexual activity of the opposing candidates’ wives to attack each other. Inevitably, it seems that what determines both the popularity of a politician’s wife, and their electoral usefulness to their husband, is whether they play the role of the ‘good wife’ properly.

Brigitte Macron doesn’t necessarily fit this category. The President’s ex-teacher, 25 years his senior, divorced her husband for her ex-pupil. Not exactly the traditional housewife. It’s hard to measure what her impact has been on her husband’s popularity and whether this new book will do anything to boost his ratings. However, there is no doubt that through redirecting the attention of the press and public to Brigitte, at least some of the attention from the social unrest which has dominated France for the last few months has been shifted from Macron.

As politics becomes more and more personal, and the lines between celebrity and politician, entertainment and politics, are blurring, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the power of the wives of our leaders.

Alex Chitty

Image Credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images