Support 110 years of independent journalism.

16 January 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

Why, in 2014, are first ladies still expected to behave like 1950s housewives?

Open your mouth and identify yourself as a human being while daring to be married to a high-powered politician, and the media is unlikely to look kindly upon you.

By Rhiannon

By now, you probably know the story: Closer magazine sent a paparazzo to prove French President Francois Hollande was having an affair with a younger actress, he rocked up to see her on a moped, and the rest is newspaper history. News has emerged that his so-called “mistress”, Julie Gayet, who in the furore has been keeping something of a low profile, is to sue Closer for breach of privacy. As the story broke, first lady Valerie Trierweiler was immediately hospitalised with the “shock” of finding out that her already-unpopular partner was being accused of being a philanderer; Hollande, who was not married to Trierweiler, hilariously announced today that he would “clarify” whether she is “still” first lady before his trip to Washington DC in February. 

From the looks of the reports on this side of the channel, you’d think that this triangular saga might be the Frenchest thing that has ever happened. Experts are being wheeled out left, right and centre to speculate on the pathological unfaithfulness of French men and on the tolerant behaviour of their female counterparts. The Telegraph columnist Brooke Magnanti even went so far as to suggest that Trierweiler’s retreat to a hospital bed has made her unpopular with French women, supposedly because French women are not “supposed” to be publicly heartbroken but to put up and shut up for the sake of their husbands’ political careers. Whether or not this rampant speculation on the part of the former Belle de Jour has any grounding in reality remains to be seen, though as far as we can gather the only French thing about her is her pseudonym. We expect every French female journalist in the city has a phone ringing off the hook right now thanks to editors searching for the female angle. They’re missing a trick, however. The behavioural prescriptions being levied on Trierweiler have nothing to do with her Frenchness, and everything to do with her femaleness. 

Take the the New York Postʼs unforgiving headline: “French prez Hollande will pick lover in time for Obama visit”. So far, so continental. Mix in a bit of classically British curtain-twitching and you get the Independentʼs “Valerie Trierweiler: Five facts about the French first lady”, not to mention the Daily Mailʼs claim that she is ʻa rottweiler whoʼs now been bitten herselfʼ. Included in the Independentʼs factsheet is the curious tidbit that Trierweiler was made cover star for Paris Match magazine – the magazine that she wrote for as an arts correspondent – in 2012, under the stomach-turning moniker “Hollandeʼs charming asset”. On seeing this blatant insult, she tweeted: “My thoughts go out to all angry women” – surely one of the best sentences of all time – while calling out the mag on its sexism. It was a brave move, especially considering that the position of the “first lady” has been exclusively ornamental for so long. Open your mouth and identify yourself as a human being while daring to be married to a high-powered politician, and the media is unlikely to look kindly upon you.

Weʼve seen this sad state of affairs played out many a time: many will remember, for instance, the media criticism that Cherie Booth faced while playing “first lady” to Tony Blairʼs prime minister. The general tabloid consensus at the time was that sheʼd failed to adapt to the role very well, having committed such outrageous atrocities as continuing her own (very successful) career. See also Carla Bruni being slut-shamed for being audacious enough to have had a sexual past that pre-dated Sarkozy. Meanwhile, Michelle Obamaʼs professional and philanthropic efforts have been consistently overlooked in favour of her fashion sense ever since her husband came to power. In 2012, the Huffington Post reported that sheʼd been publicly singled out by one Virginia voter as one reason why he wouldnʼt vote for her husband, claiming that “she doesnʼt act or look like a first lady”. When asked to elaborate upon that, however, the mouthy voter became a lot less sure of himself. Was he referencing her race, her haircut, or her failure to conform to a the tragic, stylish-but-silent stereotype that still persists in the public imagination? Possibly all three. As far as the media and some of the voting public is concerned, behind every great man is a perfectly put together woman. And if she manages to combine the perfect looks of a Stepford Wife with the decorum of a dowager, all the better. 

While writing this article, it struck us that we’ve never actually heard Samantha Cameron’s voice – nope, not even on WebCameron – and yet she’s bandied about by the Tory party as their “secret weapon”, the woman who keeps David Cameron “grounded”. While Justine Miliband insists bravely in front of the nation’s media that she is “more than a dress”, after reading the newspapers you’d think that Sam-Cam was little more than a walking Boden shift dress. And what if, as Camilla Long has speculated, a similar menage-a-trois was to emerge here, with David Cameron being caught red-handed in a tryst with Helena Bonham Carter? What would be expected of Sam-Cam then? Hospitalisation for heartbreak would certainly not be in line with that perennial British belief in the stiff upper lip.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

So who is the ideal “first lady”? Is she a woman who sacrifices her personhood to become a supportive wife? Is that the cultural paradigm we’re sticking with as a global community, despite years and years of supposed progress? This week Douglas Hurd suggested that the sheer number of women in public roles could risk our country appearing “ludicrous” – despite the fact that female MPs still occasionally get mistaken for secretaries. The implication is, as ever: know your place. And though that place may be on the campaign trail, it’s still better if you stand behind your husband. 

It’s disappointing that, in 2014, first ladies are still expected to have all of the qualities of a stereotypical 1950s housewife: excellent social engagement skills, good hostessing, pretty dresses, a lack of personal ambition, excellent hats, and few opinions. While it isnʼt exactly a job, itʼs tacitly expected that any first lady worth her salt wonʼt take an actual job while performing the role. Like the perfect princess, she becomes a pleasing appendage, a woman who, unlike “first men” such as Denis Thatcher and Joachim Sauer, is not regarded with suspicion. Because as far as the word is concerned, she is exactly where she should be.

Content from our partners
<strong>What you need to know about private markets </strong>
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action