When the news broke that Melania Trump would not be immediately moving to Washington, D.C., some people were outraged that there wouldn’t be a First Lady in residence in the White House. Who, they asked, would handle the traditional social events or champion a cause as previous First Ladies have done?
Patriotic sacrifice, or gender bias?
While it’s a long-standing tradition that many people have come to expect, there is no legal requirement that a First Lady live in the White House, do any particular work at all, or devote herself to supporting her husband’s presidency in any way.
And following those traditions means giving up a lot—your residence, your schedule, and your accustomed life. Michelle Obama, for instance, left a prestigious job as vice president of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals when her husband won the presidency. And while First Ladies don’t pay rent, they are responsible for their own expenses at the White House, including every meal they eat and the clothes they wear.
Some have proposed that because we expect an active First Lady to essentially give up her own goals and career and devote herself to four (or eight) years of service to the country, she ought to get a salary just as the president does. Under federal law, the president earns $400,000 per year (although President Trump has declined this—or at least, that was the plan) and is allotted $50,000 for expenses, $19,000 for entertainment, and $100,000 for travel.
Meanwhile, the First Lady receives zilch—and that strikes many as a classic case of gender discrimination. If she were to be paid or receive an expense account, Congress would need to pass legislation to compensate her and cover her expenses.
Long gone are the days when a woman was expected to stay home and support her husband’s career, so it may be time for the some updates to the rules that apply to First Ladies.