What does it mean to be the First Lady of the United States? The First Lady is just the President's wife. She doesn't campaign to be First Lady. Her background, education, place of birth, or political viewpoint does not determine whether she becomes First Lady. She is not paid, nor does she have any real political power. Despite these facts, there is an expectation or perception by the American people as to what a First Lady should be. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Michelle Obama have helped define what it means to be the First Lady and an American.
America in the 1950s was finally recovering from twenty years of financial depression and war. People's pocketbooks were getting larger, the housing market was soaring due to the "baby boom," technology was advancing rapidly, and corporations were taking over the commercial world. While men were away fighting WWII, women had to fill their shoes in the workplace to keep the country running. Unfortunately, when the war was over men took their jobs back, displacing nearly 2 million women back into the kitchen and laundry rooms (Dalton). Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis came into the picture on the coattails of this revolution. Being only in her 20s during this time period, she was at the edge of change in America.
Despite problems in her family, or possibly due to them, Jackie was extremely independent. She attended Vassar College, studied abroad in France, and then graduated from George Washington University with a degree in French literature. Afterwards, she did not hesitate to take a job in order to support herself. While she may have come from money, her father spent most of it "spoiling his daughters" and drinking, while her mother was busy trying to maintain her social, aristocratic airs (Thomas). It's no wonder she became so strong and independent.
In the spotlight as First Lady of the United States, Jackie was in a position to become a role model for Americans, whether she meant to or not, because of her independent nature. She refused to get involved in politics, having no interest in "listening to all those boring politicians," as she put it (Thomas). Jackie kept with her own interests, which included history, the arts, entertainment, and fashion. Her love and respect for history is visible in the costly renovations to the White House. Many authentic pieces of art and furnishings from other historical Presidential eras were brought in, turning the White House into a living museum. Additionally, the White House became "the place to be" for anyone with any renown, especially artists, musicians, and writers. To top that off, she was a fashion icon, using her sense of style to woo the American people and foreign diplomats alike.
Men wanted to know Jackie, and women wanted to be her. Women all over the U.S. started copying her designer French looks and signature pillbox hats. She showed women that they need not be the typical housewife, subservient to their husbands. She was intelligent, educated, free-spirited, stylish. Foreign diplomats from many different countries fell in love with Jackie. On one state trip to Paris in 1961, she made such an impression on the people that in end, John F. Kennedy said, "I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it" (Thomas). Jackie did her homework before such state trips, whether she was acting as an ambassador or attending with the President. By studying the currents events, culture, history, and even clothing style, she was able to "demonstrate respect for that nation's people through her words, actions, and wardrobe" ("The U.S."). In this way she was able to gain a great amount of respect from many foreign countries, not only the for the President, but the American people as a whole.
Following in the footsteps of Jackie Kennedy, though fifty years later, Michelle Obama is on the right path to leaving a similar legacy. Her upbringing could not have been more opposite to Jackie's. Michelle grew up in a one-bedroom apartment on the South Side of Chicago. She and her brother, Craig, made the living room their bedroom, hanging a makeshift divider for privacy. Her father worked a blue-collar job and her mother stayed home to care for the children. They did not have an excess of money, but they had strong family bonds. Both Michelle and Craig were taught early the benefits of a proper education and hard work. Their parents supported their endeavors with love, and expressed a solid faith that Michelle and Craig could achieve anything they set their minds to. Craig went to Princeton on a basketball scholarship, and Michelle followed him with loans and other aid. After Princeton, Michelle graduated from Harvard Law and began a successful law career. This was quite an accomplishment for a woman of her time and background. However, instead of continuing on the path of prestige, she has used her education and influence to give back to the community.
Now fully ensconced in the White House, Michelle has not forgotten what her purpose is. Becoming the First Lady has not stopped her from being a devoted mother, coining herself "Mom-in-Chief" (Savage). Most of what she does is in the name of her children, and the future of all children. Michelle brought in students from a local elementary school to help plant an organic garden on the White House South Lawn; the students learned how to garden, about the importance of good nutrition, and it has set an example for other families. She's taken on the serious issue of child obesity, and used her position as First Lady to set in motion policies that will ensure our children have the best future possible. Much like Jackie Kennedy, Michelle strives to raise her children and normally as possible, given the extraordinary circumstance of being the daughters of the President and living in the illustrious White House. Her daughters still play in the back yard, do homework, shop for new school clothes, and act as children should. Politics have no place in the children's lives, but Michelle makes sure family time is in abundance ("A Conversation").
The most powerful and admirable thing about Michelle Obama is her ability to set an example for the American people through her actions and words. She does this by being honest and true to herself and what she stands for, never losing focus despite the stress of being the First Lady and a working mother. The way Michelle presents herself in public is not a façade to gain respect; like her or not, what you see is what you get. Her choice of (mostly) affordable clothing, her down-to-earth demeanor, and the issues she has decided to address make it seem that she's just another American woman trying to make the world a better place - she just happens to have married a man that became the President. In an interview with Good Housekeeping, Michelle expresses her values as "those life lessons that you learn growing up: work hard, treat people with respect, tell the truth" ("A Conversation"). These are the values that she is teaching America, and what make her such an inspirational role model.
Both Michelle Obama and Jackie Kennedy have left an indelible mark on the American people. Kennedy revived the arts, history, and fashion in burgeoning, post-war 50s and 60s. She showed women how to be graceful and stylish, strong and independent. Even after the death of John F. Kennedy, Jackie shocked the world by running off to Greece with Aristotle Onassis for the sake of her own and her children's privacy and protection (Thomas). And again, after Onassis passed away, Jackie took an editing job back in New York even though she could have retired with millions of dollars. In a similar fashion, Michelle Obama has begun to show America what it means to be a strong, independent woman of the early 21st century. In a time of unnecessary war and recession, Michelle is teaching America the value of family, community, education, hard work, and healthy lifestyles. What more could you ask of the First Lady?