The Rise of the Role of the First Lady Essay Sample

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Vibe magazine stated that, “Michelle Obama delivered one of the most poignant speeches in recent political history at the Democratic National Convention.” With all the attention placed on the office of the president sometimes we forget about the role and effect of the first lady. Often times, the First Lady takes a backseat to her husband, and the problems and policies that are important to him. This is not Michelle Obama. While she is careful not to steal her husband’s thunder, First Lady Obama is known to cause a storm all her own. She not only plays a dynamic role in President Obama’s presidency, but she also heads her own initiative, Let’s Go, to get kids active to combat childhood obesity. Born Michelle Robinson, First Lady Obama was raised by her mother and father on the South Side of Chicago. She learned to value hard work, service, and family. She has carried these values with her into her role as first lady. As First Lady, Michelle Obama’s first loyalties are to President Obama and their family. In the speech from the Democratic National Convention she said, “I see how these stories, our collection of struggles, and hopes and dreams, I see how that’s what drives Barack Obama every single day.

And I didn’t think it was possible, but today, I love my husband even more than I did four years ago, even more than I did 23 years ago when we first met.” First Ladies experience a huge sacrifice when they have to give up their husbands so that they can serve the country, but with great sacrifice great reward will come in seeing your husband grow and falling more and more in love with him. Immediately following her loyalties to her family, First Lady Obama’s second responsibility is to this country. She has to serve the people, maintain a positive image, inform, and support her husband even in times of turmoil. Because, First Ladies and their rhetorical significance were overlooked in our textbook, my proposal is for further research on the role and significance of the First Lady. While being a First Lady is not an institutional role with a description in the constitution, there have been just as many First Ladies as there have been presidents and they each played a role.

Our image of the First Lady, how she speaks and presents herself to the American people effects our political socialization. If nothing more it at least affects our view of the president himself. Also, with First Ladies having their own initiatives, they can use their political status to set the agenda, redefine issues, and persuade the American people to focus on certain issues. My specific proposal is to gather information on the transformation of the role of the first lady, and through surveys, polls, and analysis identify the rhetorical significance of the First Lady to the overall attitudes and efficacy of the American people. A lot of the research already done on First Ladies focuses on gender rather than political communication and it’s effectiveness. For example, Edwards article on how the first lady was portrayed in cartoons focuses on how she is portrayed as a woman rather than a political figure. Also Dulcie Straughan begins her article, First Ladies and the press: The unfinished partnership of the media age, with the words, “Calling first ladies the single most visible symbole of American womanhood…treats them as news makers in their own right” (Straughan, 2006).

She ventures on to give the background of first ladies in the media. She acknowledges Eleanor Roosevelt as the first to have a relationship with the media (Straughan, 2006). She also notes further in the paragraph that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was the first to begin the first lady initiatives. She beautified the White House, while Nancy Reagan focused on just saying no to drugs, and Barbara Bush focused on education. The main focus of this research was to show how first ladies, though they do work hard in their roles, can be “lionized, trivialized, and occasionally demonized by the media” , because they are women (Straughan, 2006). Becklund’s news article on Barbara Bush and her rhetoric toward the under privileged was a perfect example of how the media can focus on the negative and miss the big picture. Maddux wrote a research article that was also focused on gender, but it helped in my research, because it focused on one particular rhetorical event and how it’s purpose was to change the role of the first lady during the second wave of feminism.

President Jimmy Carter sent his wife on a trip to speak in Latin countries about foreign policy. The goal was to make the role of the first lady more substantial. While Maddux focuses her article on the feminists critiques of First Lady Carter’s speech, my focus was on if it effectively changed the role of first lady. Maddux criticizes the role of first lady stating that it is ambiguous and leaves ample room for scrutiny (Maddux, 2008). Maddux does mention the power that the first lady has to use her political status to speak out against social issues, but then notes that, that power is used more by or for her husband (Maddux, 2008). All of these negative views of the role of the first lady make me eager to conduct my research. I would like to see if those views have changed. In O’ Connor’s article, Wives in the white house, there are more positive views. She acknowledges that at a time when most women did not have a voice, the first lady always had some type of political influence. There was significantly more scholarly information on first ladies that I thought. The writers of these article did well addressing the role of a first lady even when using one person as an example, they were still focus on the broader scope of the entire role.

The gap in a lot of the research was that they focused so heavily on gender in the communication of and about the first lady that they under addressed her political influence on people and policies. Also, the methods used in these articles consisted of mostly analysis of a rhetorical event. My proposal would fill in those gaps as well as add some data to the research along with theories and analysis. The research question that this project will focus on is, How do rhetorical events by the First Lady effect political efficacy and positive attitudes in college students at the University of Central Arkansas. After researching previous rhetorical events by First Ladies, for example, memoirs, speeches, and interviews, and the scholarly analysis already done on those pieces of rhetoric, I will select certain pieces of rhetoric to expose to a diverse audience. I will then survey them for responses. After which, I will expose them to selected pieces of political communication by First Lady Obama. I will survey them again, this time asking not only the effects of the communication, but also a compare and contrast to the previous pieces of rhetoric that I exposed them to.

I will analyze the data that I collect and compare it to the limited previous research done on First Ladies. What I plan to see in my research is use of the identification model that is discussed in our textbook in chapter four. First Ladies are used to identify with the female population that the president may not be able to identify with as well. Speeches like the one given by former First Lady Hilary Clinton that addressed the Women’s Conference of the United Nations in Beijing specifically target women’s issues and allows the First Lady to address it with hopes that women who identify with her will take the same stand on the issue and hold the same values. I plan to see that political language from the First Lady has the same functions of all other political language; to inform, agenda set, interpret, reflect, project, and stimulate action. When Nancy Reagan partnered with her husband for the ‘Just Say No’ CNN presentation, she used her language to stimulate action and to encourage people to say no to drugs. There are many different styles of political language.

I expect that the style most often used by First Ladies is Hortatory. Hortatory language is directed toward the mass public and often First Ladies have to use their speeches to address the public on a level that they can understand and connect with. I will gain these findings through carefully worded survey questions, and scholarly, thorough analysis. I will be surveying a diverse group of college students that attend the University of Central Arkansas. These students will be selected through a screening process to insure diversity in the group. The group will have different party affiliations, age, race, gender, and classification. They will have different majors and while some will be registered to vote, not all of them will. My goal is to have a group with all levels of political socialization. The pieces of rhetoric that will be presented may include, but are not limited to: the Carnegie Hall Speech by Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy thanking the public after the Assassination of JFK, The Just Say No speech by Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush commencement speech at Wellesley College, and Hilary Clinton’s speech to the U.N. women’s conference in Beijing.

Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech will be presented as well as her multiple CNN interviews. After the presentation the audience will be surveyed on the effects of those pieces of rhetoric, and I hope to gain insight toward answering my research question and information to base further research off of. I hope that this study reveals the rising importance and significance of the role of the First Lady. No longer are they their husband’s silent partners, but they are now very important pieces in this political puzzle. They are influencing the American people through their use of political communication. If we pay attention to the increase of effective rhetoric by First Ladies, we will notice that just like the president, she too uses communication strategies to inform, agenda set, interpret, reflect, project, and stimulate action.

This study would add to our wealth of knowledge the redefinition of yet another role, the role of the First Lady. The same way that the media redefined the role of the president, it has done the same with the First Lady, by making them both more accessible. With this research we will be able to identify new and improved expectations for the First Lady; we will be able to identify the strategies that have worked in the past and still work when it comes to the First Lady addressing the American people. Unfortunately as with every study there are limits to my project. My study sample is a limit, because it only consists of college students. There is an entire population of people that are missing. Also I would need to address the effect of higher education on political socialization since my entire study sample will be college students. Time would be another limit. Since we are unable to capture the effects of the audience at the time these speeches were presented, we have to base our research on how it would affect us now rather than how it affected them then.

This may propose a problem. An effective piece of communication in 1787 may not affect an audience in 2012 the same way that it did then. To minimize that limitation I will focus my survey questions on strategies rather than content. I hope this will spark further research on different ages, income levels, and education levels. The role of the First Lady has been to make the president seem more relatable. She has worked as a liaison between the president and the people. She has been used to unite people, and often we see her face just as much or more than the president himself. Her job description is diverse depending upon the president in office, but with the rise of media the role of the First Lady has become more relevant. Research on the rise of the role of First Lady would definitely benefit anyone interested in or studying communication


Armentrout, J. A. (2011). Sugar, salt, and fat: Michelle obama’s rhetoric concerning the “let’s move!” initiative, binary opposition, weight obsession, and the obesity paradox. (Master’s thesis, Bowling Green State University), Available from ProQuest. (3464183). Becklund, L. (1992, August 27). First lady tests bush’s rhetoric in boyne heights. Los Angeles Times Blitefield, J. (2004). Inventing a voice: The rhetoric of american first ladies in the twentieth century In M. Meijer (Ed.), Rhetoric and Public
Affairs (p. 713). Rowman and Littlefield. Edwards, J. (2000). The first lady/first wife in editorial cartoons: Rhetorical visions through gender. Women’s Studies in Communication, 23(3), 367. Lee, C. (2012, February 15). First lady crafts a campaign role.Wallstreet Journal Maddux, K. (2008). Feminism and foreign policy: Public vocabularies and the conditions of emergence for first lady rosalynn carter. Women’s Studies in Communication, 31(1), 29-55. O Connor, K. (1996). Wives in the white house. Presidential Studies, 26(3), 835. Straughan, D. (2006). First ladies and the press:the unfinished partnership of the media age .Journalism and mass Communications, 83(2), 447. Thompson, K. (2012, May 20). As the campaign heats up, first lady looks to play it cool. The Washington Post, p. A1. Watson, R. (2001). The “white glove pulpit”: a history of policy influences by first ladies. Magazine of History, 15(3), 9.

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