There is a debate on the Internet about first ladies getting a paycheck. This is an interesting debate, and of course one that brings up much larger issues than why the first lady does not get paid.
In fact, when I raised this question with my colleagues and family, I got to witness quite an interesting debate. I could not find any research that lists whether the first lady is “allowed” to work or not.
Some say the first lady should not get paid because her position is not elected. Her job does not have an official job description or official duties. The president, with his $400,000 a year salary makes enough for both of them, including all the perks they get.
Compared to the reasons why she should be paid, the argument against her getting paid seems very weak. For instance, hundreds of staffers at the White House are not elected positions, yet they get paid, including the first lady’s secretary. The two major jobs the first lady does are playing hostess to heads of state, or event planner, and meeting with various guests, which resembles the job of a lobbyist. Those two jobs make between $45,000 and $130,000 a year.
Another point to raise here is if Hillary Clinton had become our next president, would Bill Clinton stop doing lectures and speeches? Would he stop making money for the four or eight years she was in office? Would he turn down his annual presidential salary for that time?
There was talk during the inauguration that Dr. Jill Biden was interested in teaching at a local community college. Why should she be allowed to work, but not the first lady? She is obligated to give up her career and cannot earn an income, pay off old debts or build for retirement.
If Obama is re-elected, that would mean eight years of her not earning any Social Security or money toward her retirement, which could adversely affect her in the future, regardless if she gets some kind of “package” for being the president’s wife.
The larger issue surrounding the first lady not getting paid, however, is about sexism and the rigid sex roles we still assign to men and women in our culture.
While she is welcome to come up with a platform and champion a cause that is personal to her, working for charity is not valued as important work in our society. Planning events, managing a home and children, and entertaining guests are also not valued in our culture and these are tasks assigned to the first lady.
Women do not get paid for the work they do in the home and raising children. The United States is often criticized for our lack of support for housewives and mothers. And when the woman married to the man at the top of the country cannot earn money for the work she does in the home to support her husband, then why would any other woman expect to get paid for her time spent in the home?
Arlie Hochschild’s book, “The Second Shift,” written in 1990, examines couples in dual career marriages and the time they each put in for housework and childcare. Her 10-year study revealed that women, who work full time, also work more 24-hour days than their husbands taking care of the home and the children.
The old adage “a man may work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done” will always remain part of our culture until something changes. Maybe at the top?