This might just blow your mind, but if Barack Obama is elected in
November, Michelle Obama will be the second First Lady who has a
post-graduate degree and who has worked up until inauguration. Guess
who was the first.
What exactly does the First Lady of the United States do? She's married to the President, shakes a lot of hands, always looks awesome and keeps a fairly low profile. But is there a contractual obligation for the wife of the president-elect to life in the White House and carry out "First Lady" duties?
The answer is yes. The spouse of a presidential candidate has to agree to the duties before the candidate announces his presidential run. Imagine the chances of a Presidential Candidate whose spouse didn't want to speak to the Press or speak publicly on behalf of her husband. He'd never make it past the primaries. The wife of any potential president has to make an interesting sacrifice: become a famous third wheel and put your career on hold when (and if) the time comes.
Wikipedia notes that the First Lady "carries no official duties, and receives no salary". Interesting, since she has always acted as an ambassador and participant in many domestic and international functions, as well as an advocate on behalf of literacy, health care, conservancy, and many other issues. This doesn't sound like the life of an indulgent housewife--it sounds like a pretty tough job, even in the cases where she has to sit in place of the President. All with no salary and no choice of opting out, since "there is a strong tradition against the First Lady holding outside employment while occupying the office."
I think both the title of "First Lady" and spotlight on a candidate's spouse should be dissolved. Why would the President's wife, whom he loves and respects, live at his office and work with him without pay? It could be worse, but her life becomes examined under the microscope just as closely as his does, and her name isn't even on the ballot. When the Monica Lewinsky scandal surfaced and Bill Clinton apologized profusely to his family and the nation in a very public ordeal, Hillary Clinton couldn't have left the White House even if she wanted to, simply because of the incredibly submissive view of how a First Lady would handle an unfaithful spouse. And, to put icing on the Clinton cake, ten years later, the thought of Bill Clinton as First Gentleman was laughable, since he'd already been president. People literally didn't know what Bill Clinton, a man and a former president, would do as First Gentleman. Most people I knew assumed he'd either butt heads with Hillary in a never-ending power struggle or have more affairs with White House interns.
Until lawmakers clearly define the role of First Lady, society shouldn't ask her to make so many sacrifices. If she wants to be there, great: give her a job description, a salary, add her name to the ballot, and you'll get her in office along with the President. But until then, we should stop expecting the First Lady to work without pay or freedom to do what she wants for four years.