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La Crónica de Hoy, Mexico

The Politician’s Wife

By Concepción Badillo

Michelle Obama and Margarita Zavala are already much more popular and admired than their husbands.

Translated By Anna Ruby Waxham Blackwell

12 May 2010

Edited by Jes­sica Boesl

Mexico - La Crónica de Hoy - Original Article (Spanish)

When Barack Obama and Felipe Calderón meet here next week, the leaders will have meetings with tense themes to address, speeches to practice, ceremonies to attend, and dinners to shine at. No one doubts that it will be a strenuous visit.

But the presidents are only doing their job; exactly the job for which they applied and for which they are paid — and well-paid, at that.

Along with them, however, are their wives, who, for their part, will have a series of activities that aren't exactly a vacation and that the first ladies do more out of obligation than love. Love for their spouses and for their respective countries.

Although their positions aren't jobs with payments or specific duties, the wives of the presidents will play a decisive role on this trip. In fact, they will doubtlessly steal the show, especially as Michelle Obama and Margarita Zavala are already much more popular and admired than their husbands.

Frequently, when talking about first ladies, one thinks of place settings and parties. During this visit the topic of their clothing and personal style will surely be a big theme — to such a degree that both are likely to consult with experts. But in this case, both are also mothers and professionals who left behind lucrative careers to become not only ambassadors and representatives of their countries, but also full-time companions of their husbands and public figures of enormous influence.

In the United States, the function of the first lady was inaugurated with Martha Washington in 1789. According to historians she did it reluctantly, feeling a great preference for her private life. Since then, the wives of presidents have transformed the post in accordance with their personalities from national hostesses to managers of the White House, behind the scenes political advisers, and promoters of their favorite public cause.

It could be said that their work is voluntary and rarely visibly political, although clearly there have been exceptions, such as with Edith Wilson, the wife of Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), who assumed his governmental responsibilities when he was paralyzed by a stroke.

But traditionally, as in almost all nations and with almost all women, the activities of the first lady always have related to the house and children; although, in this case, it is the presidential mansion and the children of an entire country. While the work they do is not cataloged as employment — principally because there is neither monetary compensation nor a clear job description — what they do is not insignificant nor banal. Even presiding over a reception for dozens of unknown people requires grace, effort, and skill.

No one doubts that their daily lives are ones of privilege or that they have help with the household and children that exceeds the wildest dreams of 99 percent of the rest of the women on the planet. But there are luxuries that they simply cannot give themselves; at the very least, not at the frequency that they might like, such as calling in sick to stay in the house watching television.

The declaration of the poetess Mary Wilson, wife of the first English Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who publicly, and well-known as such, asked herself if it wouldn't be the same to use a mannequin: put a hat on its head, flowers in its hands, and use it in place of her. But this was generations back, when the wives of politicians were visual adornments.

Today the wife of a politician, like that of a diplomat, has to balance family with her public life. She has to impose her style, create her mark and, as a sign of the times, be, as much as she can be, politically active. Now, no one expects her to bake cookies.

In Washington, Verónica Sarukhán, wife of Ambassador Arturo Sarukhán, is an example of this. At 37 years old, and the mother of two daughters, she is an enthusiastic promoter of Mexico and her culture.

The day will arrive when, here and in Mexico, there will be a first gentleman, but meanwhile we can only admire the work first ladies carry out as wives of leaders. It wasn't in vain that Margaret Thatcher, the legendary Prime Minister of England, always said that, “If you want something said, ask a man ... If you want something done, ask a woman.”



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