Donald Trump is unlikely to be the only member of his family shaping American attitudes and culture, experts say. His wife may as well.
Melania Trump, who will become first lady next month, has said a campaign against bullying – in particular, cyberbullying – will be one of the main focuses of her attention while her husband is in office.
“Nancy Reagan called it the first ladies' White Glove Pulpit, and she was absolutely correct,” said Gil Troy, the author of “Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons.”
The book chronicles the power of the first ladyship and the impact of the projects undertaken by each presidential spouse from Jacqueline Kennedy forward.
“First ladies have tremendous symbolic power. Melania Trump's intention to use her celebrity to fight bullying is keeping within this great presidential tradition,” Troy said. “If history is a guide, (her efforts) may serve as a source of good news within the Trump administration – and inspiration to the American people.”
In some cases, a first lady has “truly changed the way the nation came to perceive an important aspect of national life,” said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, National First Ladies' Library historian and a prolific author on first ladies.
Activist first ladies are recent
Early first ladies tended to play a strictly social role during their time in the White House, with the notable exception of Eleanor Roosevelt. But starting with Jacqueline Kennedy, each first lady has had a project of national scope. Among the projects tackled by first ladies are poverty, Roosevelt; historic preservation, Kennedy; beautification, Lady Bird Johnson; mental health, Rosalynn Carter; drug abuse prevention, Nancy Reagan; and literacy, Barbara Bush and Laura Bush.
Current first lady Michelle Obama has focused on both preventing obesity and reaching out to military families.
“Do we want children to be safe and secure and dream big dreams?” Mrs. Trump asked at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania days before the November election. “We need to teach our youth American values – kindness, honesty, respect, compassion, charity, understanding, cooperation.”
She then turned her attention directly to the ways technology both help and complicate communication and courtesy.
“Now social media is a centerpiece of our lives. It can be a useful tool for connection and communication,” she said, adding that it also can lead to “the insulation that so many people feel.”
She observed, “Technology has changed our universe. But like anything that is powerful, it can have a bad side. We have seen this already.”
Trump said American culture has become too mean and too rough, especially to children and teenagers. She said bullying is never okay, but deemed it “absolutely unacceptable when it is done by someone with no name hiding on the internet.”
Linda Kirkpatrick, president of Family Patterns Matter, a local nonprofit that works to stop bullying, said she is pleased with Trump’s advocacy of the issue and hopes the first lady’s focus will bring understanding generally and educational programs to schools and organizations to help reduce the prevalence of bullying.
Sharing her spotlight is the strongest tool
“First ladies are expected to get behind causes to give them visibility and help provide solutions and bring in new resources,” said Andrew Och, known as “The First Ladies Man” because of his website and reporting on the topic. “Historically, first ladies have brought many issues to the forefront of society and the front pages of newspapers and magazines.”
Some presidential wives backed into the cause they were known for. Mrs. Kennedy, for instance, found the White House when she moved in to be ramshackled compared to the luxury she was accustomed to. So, she launched a renovation campaign for the executive mansion that grew to a bigger cause.
Mrs. Ford became associated with her cause due to an even more personal experience, Troy observed.
“When Betty Ford realized she had breast cancer – and went public with it – she taught Americans how to say both words in public and realized the power of this ill-defined yet very prominent and ultimately powerful position,” he added.
While first ladies have been expected in some measure to have a project since the Kennedy years, some earlier president’s wives undertook projects that had broad social implications. Georgia-born Ellen Wilson campaigned to improve housing for the poor in Washington, D.C. while her husband was president.
Dr. Katherine Sibley, director of the American studies program at Saint Joseph University in Philadelphia, cited Florence Harding's work on creating a more modern and humane prison for women in the 1920s, which led to the Alderson Prison Camp which opened in 1927.
But that was an exception. The societal impact of first ladies did not become expected until more recently, according to Sibley. From the 1960s on, first wives created a legacy during their husbands’ terms.
“The public's perception definitely changed owing to these first ladies' work,” Sibley said.
“Michelle Obama's efforts on childhood obesity, for instance, have already been having an effect on lowering the rates of obesity and changing the way children eat in their schools. And military families have been very grateful for the way in which her measures have facilitated access to jobs for military spouses when the family changes their residence, as well as the greater access to college,” Sibley said.
First ladies usually begin early
Anthony said president’s wives in the modern era generally begin putting into place the components for their agenda between the election and the inauguration.
“It usually starts with an abstract intention,” he said. “Jackie Kennedy wanted to stir awareness and pride in American history and culture. Pat Nixon sought to encourage organized voluntarism and bring attention to organized volunteer organizations. Rosalynn Carter wanted to improve and streamline the nation's response to mental health issues.”
Sibley said the anti-bullying campaign could be stronger if Trump were not delaying her move to the White House. The building itself is an important platform for first ladies' activism, she said.
First ladies’ projects do not necessarily solve problems, but their raised awareness can extend long past their husbands’ years in office.
“Depending on how many other political issues of the time, the general context of the unfolding presidency and the number of other issues they later took on, these projects can have a lasting effect, in different ways,” Anthony said.
He noted that the Kennedy, Johnson, Bush and Obama first lady projects all resulted in some form of national policy change, be it new legislation or federal funding.
In some cases, the project had a more subtle – and perhaps substantial impact.
“Kennedy truly spearheaded the historical preservation movement. Lady Bird Johnson changed the way citizens viewed their environment, whether it was their own neighborhoods or national parks. Betty Ford forever altered the shame once experienced by women who had breast cancer. Michelle Obama has raised a greater awareness of the connection between what one eats and one's health and well-being,” Anthony said.