When does women’s work become real work?
When no woman shows up to do it.
It feels like a footnote to the tumult of Month 1 of the Trump presidency, a minor detail easily lost in the toxic stew of news about Russia, executive orders, legal appeals and grammatically challenged Twitter blitzes. But by now, most of America knows that Melania Trump has declared herself the First Lady Who Wouldn’t.
Instead of taking up the mantle of First Hostess and slipping into the role of a landlocked Julie the cruise director without complaint, Melania the Intermittent has chosen to mostly stay in New York City with her young son, at least through the end of the school year, emerging from her gilded penthouse for a White House dinner here or a sightseeing jaunt there.
While a libel lawsuit suggests that Mrs. Trump had an eye on eventually monetizing her role as “one of the most photographed women in the world,” she has seemed uninterested in doing the work of the first lady. She waited until the end of January to name a social secretary and has yet to hire a full staff for her office. During his news conference last week, President Trump gave a progress report, explaining that his wife had “opened up the visitors center” and predicted that she would be a “fantastic” first lady, insofar as she was “always the highest quality that you’ll ever find.”
You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Now that Mr. Trump has turned 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue into
For decades, we’ve assumed that the wife of the man in the Oval Office would ditch whatever else she had going on — a law career, a lucrative job as a hospital administrator, a quiet life as a stay-at-home mom — to take on the gig. Since Martha Washington, the first lady has been the nation’s hostess; since Eleanor Roosevelt, she’s also championed a cause, usually related to women and children. She welcomes visiting dignitaries, entertains their spouses, hosts holiday parties and mom-dances with Jimmy Fallon, all with the public and the paparazzi ready to pounce on any wardrobe infelicities or bad hair days.
It’s a job few would sign up for. Yet we’ve expected our first ladies to do it all, without benefit of a paycheck, or even a budget for clothing: While the first lady’s office has a budget, her role is considered an “office of honor,” which is fancy for “you’ll get nothing and like it.”
Michelle Obama made it look not just glamorous but effortless, and if she was ever peeved that her work went uncompensated, she never complained.
Now Mrs. Trump’s absence raises an interesting question — if this is labor, shouldn’t we be paying for it? It also exposes the problem feminism has always had with housework, in the White House or elsewhere.
In the 1960s and ’70s, second-wave feminists sought to get women into the workplace. Many insisted that housework was mindless drudgery and that fulfillment could be found only outside of the home. In 1970, Gloria Steinem said that “housewives are dependent creatures who are still children”; Betty Friedan said, “No woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor.”
And so, instead of on-site day care, flexible schedules, parental leave for men and women and a path to the top that did not punish parents for spending time at home, feminists made their priority the rights of women to get the same education, work the same long hours, earn the same wages and make the same difficult choices between work and family as men.
Some women assimilated, donning shoulder pads and faux-ties, becoming, as Ms. Steinem memorably put it, the men they were once supposed to marry, earning law and medical degrees, becoming corporate executives and Fox News contributors.
But housework is famously intransigent. When Mom and Dad both work, someone still has to buy the groceries and schedule the doctor visits.
Sometimes, in middle-class and upper-middle-class homes, that someone is a nanny or a housekeeper, a woman — frequently a minority woman — who tends to the house and the children so that both parents can hold paying jobs. Because our culture has devalued domestic work, caring for houses and children remains low-paying and unregulated.
In 2012, the National Domestic Workers Alliance found that 23 percent of workers were paid below their state’s minimum wage. Fewer than 9 percent of families in the study paid the Social Security tax on their domestic help’s salary.
Not all working women have made their gains on the backs of an underpaid maid or nanny. Some women never worked outside the house, either because they didn’t want to or because it didn’t make sense financially. Others resigned themselves to putting in the so-called second shift after getting home from the office.
The White House is different — it’s not as if Mrs. Trump will be picking up stray Legos, begging, “Can I please just have five minutes to myself?” while her husband asks if she’s gotten the dry cleaning. But being first lady is, essentially, being the White Housewife, taking on all of the White Housework, which includes so much travel and public speaking that Ronald Reagan once joked that with his wife, Nancy, “the government gets an employee free; they have her just about as busy as they have me.”
Now that our first lady has just said no, desperate times call for desperate measures. If we want our White House to continue to function as the people’s house, if we want that Christmas tree lit and those Easter eggs rolled, it’s time to pony up.
“Free Melania”? If she’s willing to do the work, let’s pay her instead.
Your Editor Muses: Oh, the changes yet to come. Are you ready?