Monday night, I watched the Republican National Convention with one thing in mind — what will Melania Trump’s speech be like? Among the “Make America Safe Again” rhetoric that served as the focus of the convention's first night, Melania’s time on stage was a welcome breath of fresh air. She was poised and articulate, even though she had never before read off a teleprompter on live television during one of the great political spectacles of the century. Then, of course, it was pointed out that part of her speech was near-identical to a passage from Michelle Obama's Democratic National Convention speech in 2008. That's problematic — hugely so, as many people pointed out Tuesday. But equally problematic were reactions to Mrs. Trump herself, and what they say about how our society treats women in the public eye.
Historically, there's a set of unwritten rules about who a First Lady should be: highly educated but not too political. The should be elegant and feminine — even fashion forward a la Jackie Kennedy — but not overtly sexy. And when first ladies violate those rules about who they should be, they pay. It's why Michelle Obama's active role in her husband's campaign and Hillary Clinton's attempt at an active role in her husband's presidency earned them so much hatred, and it's also the reason why Melania's work in the fashion industry and Karen Pence's towel charm business have been the recent target of such derision.
Melania is well known for being a model, and Monday night on Twitter, lots of people didn't want anyone to forget that. Several users suggested that her career is inconsistent with being First Lady:
Karen Pence, potential Second Lady, is not a model, but that hasn't protected her from ridicule around her business venture. She is — or was until the company's website recently announced that the business is on hold — the founder of "That's My Towel!" Charm, which manufactures charms family members or guests can put on their bath or pool towel in order to differentiate between matching towels. Instead of calling her a bimbo or a whore, a few media outlets and countless Twitter users made fun of her venture, calling it "dumb" and "useless."
Sure, racy fashion photography and charms for identifying whose towel is whose don’t prepare you to be Secretary of the Treasury, but neither Melania Trump nor Karen Pence applied for that job. They are people with other interests, but the fact that they are female people married to powerful men somehow puts a target on their backs in our culture. Ridiculing them becomes an acceptable sport, and criticism of the wives of politicians is almost never about their professed beliefs on any issue. It is not about a stance they take in their professional lives or their approach to philanthropy. It's about them not fitting a very specific, antiquated mold. It's about the fact that they have beliefs or interests or a professional life at all.
If the criticism doesn't stop, the world that my daughter grows up in will treat women the same way it does now, and that’s not something I look forward to.
We need to stop chipping away at political wives because their visibility means they are role models. How authentic and complex and diverse they are influences what our children think of as a successful woman, and how we as a culture talk about them influences how our children talk about women. If the criticism doesn't stop, the world that my daughter grows up in will treat women the same way it does now, and that’s not something I look forward to.
Melania Trump speaks five languages and has traveled the world. She owns both a skincare and jewelry business bearing her name. She is raising a child. Like anyone else, she has tastes and preferences when it comes to how she presents herself and who she chose as a partner. If you want to have a conversation about whether she knew her speech contained a plagiarized passage and what that means about her as a potential First Lady, that's a conversation worth having. Slut-shaming her and calling her intelligence into question are off the table.