Melania Trump (1970 – ) is the 45th First Lady of the United States, model, and old pro. Born to tax evaders in Slovenia, Melania is the second First Lady born outside of the United States (the first, born in England, was Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams). She immigrated to the United States at the age of 26 and pursued a modeling career that also included various forms of sex work.
The Office of the First Lady (OFL) has evolved into a entity within the Executive Branch. The Constitution makes no mention of the office, but over the years, the president of the United States’ spouse has become an influential post in American politics. Because the role lacks codified duties, the women who have filled this role have adopted specific policy projects and served as White House hostesses. Melania Trump has garnered many queries about her delayed arrival in Washington, her “Be Best” campaign against cyberbullying, despite her husband’s myriad of attacks on reporters, senators, and those who disagree with him. Melania has also been criticized for her choices in Christmas decor and her indifferent fashion selections while visiting detained children at the US-Mexico border. Still, she stands in a long line of First Ladies, each of whom has left their mark on the office.
Early First Ladies, such as Martha Washington and Abigail Adams, were responsible for entertaining guests and supporting their husbands policy agendas regular receptions enabled Dolley Madison to encourage bipartisanship among congressional members and to approve funding for the nation’s capital at Washington DC. Yet, the term “First Lady” didn’t come into use until the late 19th century and was made popular by Frances Cleveland, wife of President Grover Cleveland. In fact, not all First Ladies have been wives of the president. Harriet Lane was the niece of President James Buchannan and served as hostess during his term. Newspapers referred to her as “First Lady of the White House,” and she gained national popularity even in the midst of the sectional crisis preceding the Civil War.Other common titles in use during the 19th century were “Mrs. President,” “First Lady of the Republic,” and “First Lady of the Land.”
In 1870, Julia Grant took more of an aggressive approach attending Senate hearings an occasionally worked on grants meetings to offer her opinions an listening ear. Julia’s bold involvement led the way for Edith Roosevelt. Edith managed a large family and revamped the office by becoming the first to hire social secretaries and encouraged media coverage of her family. The wives of Woodrow Wilson also left a lasting mark Ellen Wilson’s only year as first lady was marked by her commitment to build decent housing in Washington DC she joined organizations to lobby for improved housing although the decrepit buildings she sought to eliminate were home to DC’s most impoverished working class African Americans Ellen died after the first year in office but Woodrow Wilson’s second wife Edith alter the first lady role even further often called the “president’s steward,” Edith managed the day-to-day correspondence meetings, was granted access to classified information, and even traveled to Europe in an official capacity, placing the First Lady on the international stage. Although Melania made headlines by advocating personnel changes in the West Wing, she wasn’t the first to make that move. In 1919, Edith successfully advocated for the removal of Secretary of State Robert Lansing after he conducted meetings in the absence of Woodrow and Edith Wilson.
It’s entirely possible that Eleanor Roosevelt had the most significant influence on the office. Known for traveling cross-country to promote FDR’s New Deal, Eleanor also engaged in her independent activism. She supported the fight for human rights and women’s equality and was known for public lectures and her news column, “My Day.” Eleanor continued her activism beyond her term in the East Wing. Jackie Kennedy was the first to hire a press secretary, and Rosalynn Carter focused her efforts on the nation’s mental health. Hillary Rodham Clinton engaged her political career after pushing her husband’s policy reform agenda. “Mom-in-Chief” Michelle Obama focused on motherhood and her daughters while extending her maternal love to the nation’s youth through childhood obesity programs.
The First Ladies have evolved to be much more than White House hostesses. They are political ambassadors, and that role continues to evolve. It is not yet clear what Melania Trump will contribute to its legacy, but the women’s shoulders on whom she stands ensure that the world is watching.
Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…
 Anita B. McBride, “The Office of the First Lady: Managing Public Duties, Private Lives, and Changing Expectations,” *White House History:* *The Quarterly Journal of the White House Historical Association,* 45 (2020) accessed October 25, 2020 [https://www.whitehousehistory.org/filters/first-ladies](https://www.whitehousehistory.org/filters/first-ladies), 10.
 “Harriet Lane,” White House Historical Association, accessed October 27, 2020 https://www.whitehousehistory.org/bios/harriet-lane
Bennett, Kate. Free Melania” The Unauthorized Biography. New York: Flatiron Books, 2019.
Bennett’s biography details the life of Melania Trump, her Slovenian upbringing, reluctancy to engage in her husband’s presidential administration, and her relationship with Ivanka Trump.
Burns, Lisa M. ed. Media Relations and the Modern First Lady: From Jaqueline Kennedy to Melania Trump. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.
This edited volume examines the communication strategies employed by First Ladies to manage their public and private lives. Each chapter explores public engagement through the lens of a specific First Lady to interrogate if the strategies were successful, what can media and gender studies glean from these relationships, and the impact of the first lady on each presidential administration.
Caroli, Betty Boyd. First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
In its fourth edition, Caroli’s book is a key resource for information on all of America’s First Ladies. The fourth edition includes Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, and Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Caroli’s book seeks to demonstrate how each woman shaped the role of First Lady and how the office evolved with American culture.
George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. “The Term ‘First Lady,’” in The President & Family: The First Lady and Her Role, accessed October 15, 2020. Link to source.
This short article provides a brief history about the use of the title “First Lady” as well as an overview of the history of the office.
Jordan, Mary. The Art of Her Deal the Untold Story of Melania Trump. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020.
Jordan’s biography is based on over one hundred interviews to craft a narrative about Melania Trump. From her beginnings in Slovenia, to a modeling career, and finally to the White House, this biography presents Melania as a woman who used her leverage to advance privately and professionally.
Pozar, Bojan. Melania Trump: The Inside Story. Ljubljana, Slovenia: Zalozba Ombo, 2016.
A biography of Melania Trump written by Slovenian journalist Bojan Pozar, tells how Melania forged a path for herself with her ambition. Although an accessible read, this author has been criticized for his publication and statements about Melania’s history with sex work.
Scott, Fiona Sinclair. “The Weaponizing of a First Lady’s Image.” CNN Style (October 27, 2020). Link to source.
An article including quotes from presidential and political historian Leah Wright Rigueur about the role, image, and complexities of the office of First Lady.
Wolkoff, Stephanie Winston. Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship with the First Lady. New York: Gallery Books, 2020.
Wolkoff’s memoir is designed to give the reader insight into Melania’s personality and the rise and subsequent fall of their relationship.
Sources from the White House Historical Association
The White House Historical Association (WHHA) is a private, non-profit, historical research organization established in 1961 by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The WHHA’s mission is to preserve the history of and provide public access to the Executive Branch. The organization’s website has several topical pages on First Lady history as well as an academic journal, accessible on the website. The following sources are courtesy of the WHHA.
First Ladies Landing Page. Link to source.
The First Ladies Timeline. Link to source.
First Ladies Biographies & Portraits. Links to source.
First Ladies Reading List. Link to source.