Now that the White House has celebrated Halloween, Melania Trump will retreat once more to the second-floor family residence. Apart from the turkey pardon and Christmas parties, she probably will appear infrequently in public until 2019.
From the start, this First Lady has been unusually remote; socially and emotionally unavailable to the American people. She does not wish to conform to the modern conventions associated with the First Lady, which emerged around 1902 during the Theodore Roosevelt administration.
Edith Roosevelt became the first president’s wife to grant routine press coverage of herself and her children. Such access increased over time. During the past three decades, as the media grew and the realm of First Ladies scholarship intensified, historians have drawn ever greater attention to the role of the president’s wife, raising expectations that the women will engage fully with the public.
But now, nearly 20 months into the Trump presidency, we must conclude that the First Lady is most interested in engaging with a very small circle of friends and family.
Historically, she is not alone. For antecedents, look to the dark, rainy first half of the nineteenth century. One might not recognize the names outright, for the women are obscure. Just like Melania Trump, they were reluctant to leave the second floor of the White House.
The women were Margaret Taylor, Abigail Fillmore, and Jane Pierce, three ladies who never wanted their husbands to run for president and definitely didn’t care to move to the capital city that was flourishing at the edge of a swamp.
Not everyone regarded the city with dread. By 1850, notwithstanding the summertime mosquitoes and damp winter chill in the president’s house, Washington, D.C. captivated many a visitor. None other than the vivacious Dolley Madison (wife of the fourth president) made things sparkle. She hosted brilliant salons and encouraged the White House ladies who followed her to step lively.
Dolley died in 1849, the year before Margaret Taylor arrived at the executive mansion. But it mattered not to Margaret, Abigail and Jane, who brushed off society and politics and participated in few White House events.
To be sure, they had reasons.
Margaret grieved for her daughter, the first wife of Jefferson Davis, who died of malaria while visiting Louisiana during “fever season.”
Jane mourned the loss of her 11-year old son who died before her eyes in a train accident less than two months before her husband was sworn in as president.
Abigail’s health was poor.
In turn, the three women stayed upstairs, read the Bible, and welcomed a few friends to the parlor. They sent their daughters and nieces downstairs to receive visitors and preside over dinners.
The wives of presidents Taylor, Fillmore and Pierce were cast from the antebellum feminine ideal that historians refer to as “the cult of true womanhood,” which was fostered by a patriarchal system. The ideal virtues were piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.
Melania Trump conforms, in part, to the type. Her adventures in modeling took her where no First Lady has gone before, so one might cross off purity. Her manner is largely compliant, however, and she prefers to be at home.
And so there exists an odd affinity on the second floor of the White House.
On one hand, here is a woman who owes her rise to the twenty-first century’s lack of inhibitions. On the other hand, there are three Victorian ladies dressed in black gowns with stiff lace bodices, bent over their embroidery and asking for smelling salts.
|Antebellum White House
Melania montage by Claudia Keenan