The bake-off was an attempt to appeal to stay at home moms following her
controversial response to California governor Jerry Brown’s criticism that she owed her professional success to her husband, Bill. “I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had tea,” she told a reporter in a soundbite that was reported around the world. “But what I decided to do was fulfill my profession.” Many women responded with outrage, and perhaps that’s why, shortly thereafter, Clinton participated in the traditional Family Circle first lady bake-off. And won.
Clinton’s cookies are good: my best friend’s mom used to make them for her school lunches. No doubt Hillary could have won any number of bake-offs with her recipe, but politics have paid off far more for her: in less than a year, she may be the first female president of the United States. But if that happens, she won’t be the only one breaking a gender barrier: her husband Bill will step into a role no man has ever held before. So what kind of first lady will Bill Clinton be? (Besides, of course, a manly one).
Different women leveraged the position in different ways: some argue that Lady Bird Johnson was the first to modernize the job when she campaigned on behalf of her husband Lyndon B Johnson in the mid 60s, but others wielded significant political clout before her. Eleanor Roosevelt’s work as a writer, activist, public speaker and social reformer is perhaps most famous. But other notably hard-working first ladies include Florence Harding, wife of Warren G, a passionate suffragette who edited all of her husband’s important speeches and pushed hard to influence his appointments.
But when Hillary Clinton moved into the White House in 1993, she was not granted the same flexibility. As the chair of the Task Force on National Health Care reform, she was slammed in the press for stepping beyond the reaches of her role, in spite of her clear qualifications to work on policy: the implication was that she was being unladylike. To many Americans, the revelations about her husband’s extramarital sexual proclivities confirmed their belief that Hillary was failing to fulfill the remit of the first lady: to be a pleasant and decorative hostess who represents a “traditional” and anachronistic family: a man in charge, a faithful and helpful woman by his side (even though a number of other presidents and first ladies have also had notable affairs). Indeed, Clinton blamed the affair in part on herself for failing as a wife.