Forget about ‘reclusive’ first ladies
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In early 1962, John Kenneth Galbraith, then U.S. ambassador to India, agonized over how to strengthen relations with Pakistan, a newly independent state. For America to consolidate its footing in South Asia, friendship with Pakistan was crucial. Galbraith finally came up with a plan — using First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy who was adored as a celebrity. As Pakistan’s President Mohammad Ayub Khan, who had visited the White House six months ago, and the U.S. first lady were both enthusiastic equestrians, Galbraith thought she could play a role. He invited the first lady and her sister, Lee Radziwill, as his guests to India and arranged their trip to Pakistan.
Jacqueline Kennedy made special preparation for her mission. She studied histories of the two countries and used Air India for her travel. The sisters visited Taj Mahal in India and rode a camel in Pakistan, showing respect to the local culture. The outcome was a huge success. The people of the two countries flocked to see the sisters. Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, hung a photo he took with the first lady in his office throughout his term. President of Pakistan Ayub Khan sent her an expensive horse. U.S. media said the first lady’s tour of India and Pakistan was a success.
After being nominated as the next president of China in December 2009, Xi Jinping, then vice president, visited Japan with his wife, Peng Liyuan, a popular soprano of China. At the time of their visit, Japan held a celebration to mark the 20th anniversary of Emperor Akihito’s accession to the throne. Peng performed a popular Japanese song at the ceremony. Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife gave a standing ovation. Two weeks later, Xi and his wife had a meeting with the emperor. It normally takes at least a month to meet with the emperor after making a request, but the two were treated exceptionally. Peng’s performance must have played a key part.
They are examples that show a first lady can play a crucial role. President Yoon Suk-yeol’s wife, Kim Keon-hee, disappeared from the public eye for a while. She rarely attended public events and stayed away from media. Kim must have believed that the controversy surrounding her activities were a cause of her husband’s plunging approval rating.
Given critical public sentiment about former first lady Kim Jung-sook, President Moon Jae-in’s wife, for being too proactive, Kim Keon-hee made a promise during a press conference during the presidential campaign that even if her husband wins the election and takes office, she will just act as his wife.
Would a first lady who only plays a role as homemaker be not appropriate? Since 1982, Siena College Research Institute in Albany, New York, conducted five evaluations of American First Ladies by interviewing experts including historians. First Ladies were scored in 10 categories — background, integrity, intelligence, courage, value to the country, leadership, being her own woman, public image, accomplishments and value to the president. In other words, the 10 categories are what is expected from a first lady.
In the most recent survey in 2014, Eleanor Roosevelt was ranked the first as the most respected first lady followed by Abigail Adams, Jacqueline Kennedy, Dolley Madison and Michelle Obama.
Eleanor Roosevelt was perhaps the most publicly active first lady. On behalf of her husband on wheelchair, she traveled all around the country to deliver his messages and participated in negotiations sometimes. She wrote many columns to magazines and newspapers and authored multiple books. She even gave a speech in the Democratic Convention in 1940.
Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, was a pioneer of women’s rights movement. In the late 18th century, when women could not get education due to gender discrimination, she demanded gender equality be specified in the U.S. Constitution, although her effort failed. She also wrote 1,100 letters to her husband to express her opinions.
Jacqueline Kennedy contributed to the country in many different ways. Thanks to her French heritage, she studied in France and was fluent in the language. She was extremely popular when she visited Paris with her husband. Jacqueline was also fluent in Spanish and Italian. During her husband’s election campaigns, she gave speeches in Spanish. Her exceptional fashion sense helped create the young and refined image of America.
Dolley Madison — the wife of the fourth U.S. President James Madison — was the first to be called First Lady. She invited politicians from the rival parties to the White House and arranged the first-ever bipartisan meeting. She also saved the cultural relics from the White House when it was burned by the British forces in 1814 during the War of 1812.
Michelle Obama was praised for various reasons. She was a talented lawyer as competitive as her husband, but worked as a full-time homemaker after her husband took office. She did so to promote the image of a happy family all Americans wanted to see. But she refused to remain as an ordinary homemaker. She started “Let’s Move!” campaign to fight against obesity and worked hard to improve the quality of school meals.
The five most respected First Ladies showed that they are not just quiet homemakers, but they also played important and meaningful public roles.
Korea is no different. In many surveys on first ladies, Yuk Young-soo and Lee Hee-ho were almost always ranked the first or the second. It is important to remember that they both engaged actively in public activities. Yuk made efforts to support the weak in our society, including orphans and particularly patients of Hansen’s disease. She invited them to the Blue House for tea and visited Hansen’s disease hospitals nationwide.
For children, she established the Yukyoung Foundation and built the Children’s Center. She was also a devoted viewer of a media outlet critical of the right-wing administration led by general-turned-president Park Chung Hee so that she could advise him. Her nickname was the “opposition party inside the Blue House.”
Lee Hee-ho, the wife of former president Kim Dae-jung, was a renowned activist before she married him. She was Kim’s political comrade and advisor.
During Kim’s presidency, she attended the UN Special Session of the General Assembly dedicated to Children in 2002. She hosted a conference on behalf of her husband and gave a keynote speech. In other words, a first lady who successfully performs her role is respected highly both in America and Korea.
In contrast, quiet homemakers are not praised highly as first ladies. According to a Daily Mail poll in October last year on 12 First Ladies since 1960, Pat Nixon, the wife of Richard Nixon, was rated the worst First Lady. She was once described as a “paper doll” for being a typical homemaker.
Interestingly, she was ranked as the most respected woman 14 times for 20 years since the late 1950s. It shows that a First Lady praised for being a great mother is no longer respected.
If so, it is a waste of important national resource to demand Kim Keon-hee, the wife of President Yoon Suk-yeol, just stay home and do nothing. As of now, the employment rate of women with university degrees is 63.1 percent, similar to 67.1 percent for men. Of the married women with non-adult children, 56.2 percent have jobs. So, it is simply anachronistic to ask a first lady to do only housework. A blade can be a weapon but it can also save a person in a surgery. Just like that, a first lady’s role can be successful depending on how she plays it.
And yet, active public activities are not always great. Nancy Reagan, often ranked as one of the worst First Ladies, launched a campaign “Just Say No” to fight drugs, but she failed to win a good evaluation. Her adherence to overly simplified logic backfired.
Nancy Reagan was also known to have relied heavily on her astrologer and allowed her to affect important decisions in her life at the White House, causing public resentment. In conclusion, a successful first lady must engage in proper public activities while behaving wisely.