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July 28, 2016 at 10:03 am

Monitor Quotes Jellison on Role of Bill Clinton as First Gentleman

The Christian Science Monitor quotes Dr. Katherine Jellison, Professor and Chair of History, in a story on “How Bill Clinton, as first gentleman, could reshape role of first ladies.”

While not nearly as significant as electing a female president, it would not be a milestone to scoff at. As a former president himself, Mr. Clinton would be in a position to expand and redefine an office that has been criticized for not keeping pace with changing gender norms.

Dr. Katherin Jellison

Dr. Katherin Jellison

But it would be a tightrope act, experts say. With his experience and reputation, Clinton could normalize the concept of a first spouse involving themselves in politics, policy, and diplomacy, but he would have to do so without overshadowing his wife and partly hijacking the legacy of America’s first female president.

“He will have to balance his own personality tendencies, his own interest in public policy, with the idea that he can’t overshadow his wife,” says Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University and an expert on first ladies.

“There’s nothing in our Constitution that says anything about the role of the spouse of our president. It’s an unelected office and people can make of it what they like,” she adds. “There’s certainly the potential there for him to redefine the role of first spouse.”

Since the days of Martha Washington, the job has been flexible, molded by a combination of social expectations, family commitments, and the personal preferences of the first lady. The first 31 presidents’ first ladies stuck mostly to traditional homemaking roles, Dr. Jellison says – though, like most spouses, they have always been a trusted advisers to the president behind closed doors. It wasn’t until Eleanor Roosevelt swept into the White House that a first lady became publicly active in politics and policy.

“I think her shadow – or her sunbeam, depending on your perspective – has hung over the role ever since,” Jellison adds. “‘How much of an Eleanor Roosevelt am I going to be?'”

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