The American Historian

Presidential Column: Potus, Flotus, and....

Nancy F. Cott

I became aware that the Supreme Court of the United States was called SCOTUS only about ten years ago (when I became a fan of scotusblog). Some time later I realized that the president was called POTUS— but not until this year did I hear someone refer to Michelle Obama as FLOTUS. When Bill Clinton was president and Hillary Clinton first lady, were these acronyms used by the public? Not in my memory. Regardless, Hillary Clinton’s eight years as FLOTUS have resonated through her campaign to become POTUS —mainly in negative views of her held by opponents— despite her intervening service as a senator of New York and as Secretary of State. If Hillary Clinton is elected on November 8, 2016, she would be the first person ever to move from being FLOTUS to being POTUS, and Bill Clinton in the White House in his new spousal role would require an awkward acronym: FGOTUS?

This calls for some historical reflection on the First Lady having a role at all. The presidential couple, as a couple, has far more prominence in the polity of the United States than their parallels in other western representative governments. The national couple was in the spotlight here even before there was a White House. No sooner had Martha Washington debarked at the tip of Manhattan, to be greeted with shouts of ‘long live Lady Washington,’ than she had a special role in ceremonies associated with the executive.[1] Among a population leery of monarchy reappearing, a suitable ceremonial balance for George Washington’s first term had to be found— grand enough to enforce the dignity of the new nation’s executive power, yet humble and accessible enough to suit a republic founded on popular sovereignty. Martha Washington’s weekly evening receptions for men and women, complementing her husband’s levees for men only, became part of the solution to that fraught issue. She figured in national acceptance and veneration of the presidency from the earliest days of the office. That set in place a pattern for the president’s wife to be involved in public relations of presidential power.

The attention given to the president’s wife, and to the national couple as such, linked family and nation even beyond the baseline assumption that appropriate conduct of private households was necessary to political government. In political understanding at the time of the founding, frequent analogies between the marital household and the American polity as a whole elevated both of them as durable and harmonious unions formed by free consent. The position of president’s wife thus gained new meaning and suggested new horizons of aspiration for American girls, as well as boys, in representative government. “Every man, by the Constitution, is born with an equal right to be elected to the highest office;” a New England minister declared approvingly in 1793, and “every woman, is born with an equal right to be the wife of the most eminent man.” [2] He made this comment in a pitch for education for girls, never hinting that the same right might apply to both sexes.

Difference between the sexes was the bedrock for any conception of equal rights at the time. Forty years later, the famous French commentator on American politics and social life, Alexis de Tocqueville, maintained that principle. He thought that social changes visible in the United States “will raise woman and make her more and more the equal of man,” but not by making the two sexes more alike, or giving them same duties and rights. No. Americans—using a “great principle of political economy”— had specialized their functions. “In no country has such constant care been taken as in America to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes, and to make them keep pace one with the other, but in two pathways which are always different.”[3]

Like so many of Tocqueville’s assertions, this one expressed normative beliefs more than social realities. Women’s and men’s occupations at the time composed a quilt of crazy variety compared to Tocqueville’s neat division. But the power of representations such as Tocqueville’s is indisputable. Expectations of “two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes” held cultural sway as a norm for balanced households. This understanding of symmetry and complementarity could live equably alongside the norm that the husband was the head of the family.

Nowhere was this model more important than in the White House. And because the presidential couple embodied national power, the husband’s headship was excruciatingly more important than any other’s. The ‘republican queen’ (as she was sometimes called in the early days) had to be careful not to arouse fears that she was a usurper. The First Lady’s proximity to power cast a shadowy threat that she had to sidestep with exceeding delicacy. It is no surprise, then, that First Ladies with ambition have taken care to seek achievement along lines different from their husbands’—and in particular, to avoid any hint of taking power for themselves.

In American political culture for most of the nation’s history, women’s gain of overt power was seen as a reversal of the gender order as well as a deformation of the political regime. Women with political power must be lording it over men (as much as men were historically lords over women). Cartoonists typically lampooned women’s rights by picturing the resultant couple: the woman in breeches, smoking a cigar, reading the newspaper, while her hapless husband wore an apron, held the baby with one arm, and the washboard with the other. If women were to vote or hold political office, then men must be at home minding the children and doing domestic chores. Political participation by women on the same terms as men was anathema to most of the U.S. population until the era of World War I, despite the many decades of suffragist effort. As late as 1914, the major national humor magazine illustrated the notion of ‘equal suffrage’—that is, women voting—with a sly drawing of a cross-dressed, petticoated Uncle Sam.

The majority who opposed women voting at that time could applaud women’s civic influence if it was exercised beneficently and personally behind the scenes, or in self-abnegating charitable efforts to help the sick, the poor, the church, children, widows, or veterans. Opponents of women voting did not necessarily believe that women were inferior to men. Organized female antisuffragists believed that women were just as intelligent as men, but maintained that the difference between the sexes could not be ignored—and that difference dictated nonpartisan, altruistic activities for women, in contrast to the political power exercised by men. First Ladies with aims beyond the ceremonial took the same approach; they could pursue civic aims and stay in good standing when they appeared to be motivated by moral purposes.

After women became voters, the same pattern held true. Twentieth-century First Ladies have mostly emphasized service to others or the pursuit of high ideals. They have expressed the opposite of self-interest or self-aggrandizement when they act in the public realm. The one most brilliant at observing these norms while exceeding their intentions was Eleanor Roosevelt. She had begun civic efforts on her own in a settlement house, already an acceptable arena for women; then she learned the ropes of partisan politics also in an approvable way by serving as her husband’s right-hand woman after he was stricken with polio in the early 1920s yet wanted to continue his political career. Sometimes called ‘the conscience of the New Deal,” Eleanor Roosevelt made her name by standing for moral idealism, for faith in the Golden Rule, and for non-self-interested devotion to the welfare of the unfortunate. While First Lady decorum both enabled and constrained her own activities, Eleanor Roosevelt felt she could push directly for the advancement of women—women other than herself—in positions of political power. She worked constantly to elevate other women to formal appointment and helped them achieve political positions not dwarfed by a husband’s role.

So have some more recent First Ladies. Being proscribed from entering the hustings themselves, First Ladies have been welcome to show leadership by personal example. In taking up that invitation, First Ladies in the late twentieth century have remained remarkably true to the Tocquevillian script of “two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes.” Jacquelyn Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Roslyn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, and now Michelle Obama —each of them has made her mark publicly, but never in an arena pursued by her husbands.

Hillary Clinton is the one First Lady who did cross the line. And by doing so, she tripped into a sinkhole of belligerent negativity in the American electorate for doing so. The apparent interchangeability of Hillary Clinton’s political capacities and appetites with those of her husband in the 1990s—a startling first in the history of First Ladies—accounted for a great deal of the hostility she inspired then, which dogged her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and still trails her. Implicitly if not explicitly, as those hostile to her rise saw it, she had been a usurper, taking unfair advantage of her propinquity to power. A current of that older hostility powers her opponents’ assertion now that she cannot be ‘trusted.’ In contrast, Michelle Obama does have most voters’ trust. She has taken the approved path as First Lady, even though in her case it seemed more of a sacrifice since her professional accomplishments as a lawyer in corporate practice and then as a leader in civic and nonprofit organizations had run quite parallel to those of her husband’s when they lived in Chicago. Once he became president she let that go and took up a line of action “clearly distinct” from that of her husband, as First Ladies usually had. By September 2016, Michelle Obama began to stump for Hillary Clinton, in an acknowledged effort to make up for the latter’s deficit in the ‘trust’ category (see, for example).

By the time most readers of TAH read this column, you will know whether becoming “the wife of the most eminent man” is still the only way for a woman to inhabit the White House, or if the more direct route of election to the presidency has succeeded and we can cheer a cross-dressed Uncle Sam.


Nancy F. Cott is the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard University. Her writings range widely over questions concerning women, gender, marriage, feminism, and citizenship in the United States, and include The Bonds of Womanhood: 'Woman's Sphere' in New England, 1780-1835 (1977); The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987); and Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2000). Her interests also include the history of social movements, political culture, and law. Her current project concerns Americans who came of age in the 1920s and shaped their lives internationally


[1] Betty Boyd Caroli, America’s First Ladies (1996), 3.

[2] John Cosens Ogden, The Female Guide (1793), 26.

[3] Alexis de Tocqueville, “How the Americans Understand the Equality of the Sexes,” Democracy in America (trans. Henry Reeve), vol. II, reprinted in Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women (1972), Nancy F. Cott, ed., quotations on 121–22.