In sympathy with reluctant first lady

Italy Trump
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump wave to reporters before boarding Air Force One to Brussels, at the end of a two-day visit to Italy.

Melania Trump relishes her privacy, leaves politics to her husband, and makes it clear that her first job is as Barron's mother. With her son enrolling in school in Maryland, she has now moved from Trump Tower in New York City into the White House, but can she remain largely invisible as first lady?

Americans expect the wife of their president to take on the 24/7, unpaid position of first lady of the United States. It is a very public, highly scrutinized position for which there is no job description. In fact, the first lady's roles and responsibilities are constantly shifting, so I can understand Melania Trump's reluctance to dive into the job.

In the early years of our nation, first ladies could choose to stay out of the public limelight, not engage in campaigns or politics, and be a shadow partner who selectively participated in White House social affairs. But technology, a 24/7 news cycle, and the legal, political, and social transformations in gender roles have combined to change how we view the first lady.

Today, first ladies are presumed to not only be confident, polished spokespersons for their husbands and knowledgeable about politics, they also are expected to provide astute political counsel and serve as the president's most trusted adviser. Usually, they also must engage in an altruistic project that will improve the lives of a targeted group, like children or veterans, and it must not be in conflict with the president's priorities or policy positions.

Finally, there is still the notion that first ladies must be the nation's social hostess, the manager of the White House, a diplomat, and a national celebrity who shows no sign of fatigue, hostility, or selfishness.

We see the first lady position as a rare honor to serve our nation and it is, but what we don't see is that whatever First Lady Trump does or doesn't do, she will be compared to her immediate predecessor and other first ladies, liked and disliked.

With no job description and a list of expectations as long as your arm, is it any wonder Melania Trump or any other first lady might balk at embracing the role? She knows that if public opinion is not in her favor, her husband's presidency and the nation could be harmed.

The fact is that most first ladies, including Martha Washington, have been reluctant first ladies. History tells us Mary Todd Lincoln and Nellie Taft were among the few who aspired to be first lady, but the overwhelming majority of first ladies did not choose the job.

Michelle Obama worried about lost privacy and the impact on her family. She had to be convinced that moving to the White House was politically important. She jumped right into White House social activities, and the media cited her star power after her first trip abroad during April of year one in the White House. She did not begin her first pet project, childhood obesity, until the beginning her husband's second year in office.

Her low profile notwithstanding, First Lady Trump has hosted wives of visiting heads of state, presided over the governors' ball and Easter egg roll, visited children's hospitals, shelters, and schools. While traveling with her husband on his first international trip as president, she participated with spouses of other heads of state in traditional activities and garnered media attention for her stylish (and expensive) wardrobe. Although the Saudis and Israelis praised her for her style and her "advocating for the empowerment of women," the praise was criticized by some media in the United States who do not perceive her activities or statements as empowering of women.

In the polls, her favorability ratings started lower than Michelle Obama's, but have risen more dramatically in the first six months.

So what kind of first lady will Trump be? Will she broaden her engagement now that she is in the White House? Will she adopt a pet project? Several times she has mentioned working on cyberbullying. At the lunch she hosted for International Women's Day, she told those present that she wants to work to ensure that the gender a person is born with does not limit them.

Will she be an adviser to her husband? On the campaign trail, Melania Trump indicated that she does not always agree with her husband and that she shares her viewpoints and constructive criticism with him. However, she also noted that he is an adult and his own person, and therefore her viewpoints and advice may not influence him.

How will Americans respond to First Lady Trump, especially if she decides not to become more active? Will she be criticized, or will Americans decide they are ready for a first lady who limits her engagement to social activities of the White House?

Perhaps Melania Trump will be the presidential spouse who relieves future "first ladies" of the onerous, 24/7 "volunteer" position that being married to the U.S. president has become.

Jean Wahl Harris is a professor of political science and women's studies at the University of Scranton and an expert on first ladies.