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The First Lady of the United States may not be a politician herself, but she's certainly got her work cut out for her. Throughout American history, the role of the first lady has evolved with each new administration. Modern day women in this position are responsible for high-profile events, like state dinners and the White House holiday celebrations, but they're also not allowed to do some simple things, like open windows in the White House or drive their own cars. Ahead, the surprising rules Dr. Jill Biden will be expected to follow as first lady.
First ladies can only decorate some of the White House.
While they're allowed to add personal touches to the family living quarters on the second and third floors, other rooms are off-limits. Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies (opens in new tab), explained in an interview with ABC News (opens in new tab) that "some parts are essentially historic rooms and belong to the American people, not to the families who live there."
They have to get approval to change public spaces in the White House.
If the first lady and her family want to make changes to historic guest suites, like the Lincoln Bedroom or any of the public spaces on the ground and first floor, they are required to consult the Committee for the Preservation of the White House (opens in new tab).
They can choose the interior designer they work with.
While they're not required to call upon interior designers for decor help, many in recent history (opens in new tab) have. The Trumps brought in Tham Kannalikham while the Obamas turned to Michael S. Smith. A few decades before, Nancy Reagan worked with designer Ted Graber.
They have just 12 hours to move into the White House.
On Inauguration Day, the first family can't begin moving in until noon. But after the clock hits 12 p.m., things move fast. "Officers from the General Services Administration are moving people out and in, painting and recarpeting. It takes every bit of 12 hours to finish up," Bradley Blakeman, former President George W. Bush's deputy assistant told Elle Decor (opens in new tab).
They are expected to choose a theme for the White House Christmas tree.
Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition (opens in new tab) of ideating a theme for the White House at Christmastime in 1961. That year, she went with "Nutcracker Suite" for the tree. In recent history, Melania Trump went with "America the Beautiful" (opens in new tab) for 2020 and "The Spirit of America" (opens in new tab) in 2019.
They can't accept gifts from foreign governments...
Technically, gifts that are given to the president and the first lady from foreign governments are considered gifts to the United States (opens in new tab), rather than to the family themselves. There are some limited exceptions (like if the gift is of little monetary value), but for the most part, these presents are handled by the National Archives and Records Administration.
...But they can accept domestic gifts.
If the first lady receives a gift from anyone besides a foreign official, they're allowed to keep it. But there are a few exceptions to this rule as well: According to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (opens in new tab), the Secret Service requires that food and drink gifts, combustible items, and any item applied to the skin (like cologne or lotion) be destroyed for the first family's safety. The president and first lady may also have to declare their gifts in an annual disclosure report and pay federal taxes on the appraised value of the gifts they keep.
They can't open windows in the White House.
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, former First Lady Michelle Obama revealed this nugget (opens in new tab): "In the White House you can't open a window. Sasha opened her window once—there were calls. 'Shut the window!' It never opened again."
They're expected to host state dinners.
The White House Historical Association (opens in new tab) says this is "one of the grandest and most glamorous of White House affairs" and the first lady oversees everything from seating arrangements to the entertainment to the flowers.
They're expected to host the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.
According to the White House's website (opens in new tab), "The planning of the egg roll traditionally falls on first ladies, each incorporating her own tastes and interests to the event." The event itself dates back to 1878, but historians have suggested that President Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln started the egg roll festivities Americans are familiar with today.
They host a Hanukkah celebration, too.
In 2001, President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush hosted the first official White House Hanukkah party (opens in new tab), a tradition that continues today. Previous presidents had paid tribute to the holiday, but the Bushes were the first to make it an official event.
After an election, they give a tour to the incoming first lady.
After a new president is elected, the outgoing first lady welcomes the first lady-to-be to the White House with a tour. But these meetings are reportedly tense in many cases. "The stress that any of us endure during a big move can be heightened by political tensions, generational divides and the glare of the spotlight," Kate Andersen Brower, author of (opens in new tab)First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies (opens in new tab), wrote.
They have to pay for their personal expenses.
Just like everyone else, the president's family is expected to pay for items like food, clothing, and toiletries. According to The Guardian (opens in new tab), the White House usher's office prepares a monthly itemized bill of these items and sends it to the president and first lady.
They can accept designer clothes as a gift, but there's a catch.
If a designer gifts an outfit to the president or first lady, it can only be worn once and has to be donated afterwards. For example, Melania Trump (opens in new tab) and Michelle Obama (opens in new tab) both donated their inauguration gowns to the Smithsonian. Of course, first ladies are allowed to purchase designer clothing for themselves, but they're expected to pay full price just like anyone else.
Their fashion choices are subject to intense scrutiny.
As a public figure, people pay very close attention to what the first lady wears (opens in new tab). Melania Trump raised eyebrows when she wore a jacket (opens in new tab) emblazoned with the words "I really don't care, do u?" while Michelle Obama was criticized for wearing shorts (opens in new tab) while getting off Air Force One.
They can work with personal stylists.
Considering the attention their outfits get, many first ladies enlist designers and stylists to help them dress for high-profile events. Melania Trump has worked with consultant Hervé Pierre (opens in new tab) while Michelle Obama used stylist Meredith Koop (opens in new tab). Before her, Laura Bush worked with fashion designer Michael Faircloth (opens in new tab).
They aren't allowed to drive.
Hillary Clinton (opens in new tab) and Michelle Obama (opens in new tab) have both said in interviews that during their time in the White House, they missed being able to drive themselves. Even after leaving the White House, Michelle said the Secret Service doesn't allow her to drive her own car. "We still live in a bubble," she told People (opens in new tab) in 2018.
They get Secret Service protection for life.
In 2013, Barack Obama signed a law establishing lifetime Secret Service protection (opens in new tab) for all former U.S. presidents and first ladies. It also authorized security teams for the children of former presidents until they are 16 years old.
They're allowed to decline Secret Service protections.
According to federal law, the president can't decline Secret Service protection while in office, but the first lady (and adult children of the president) can (opens in new tab).
Their Secret Service protection ends if they remarry.
Presidents and their spouses get a security detail for life, but federal law (opens in new tab) states that "protection of a spouse shall terminate in the event of remarriage."
They are (usually) expected to attend the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
The White House Correspondents' Dinner is an annual event for the journalists who cover the White House and the president. According to the WHCA's website (opens in new tab), the dinner is traditionally attended by both the president and first lady. Notably, President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump did not attend these dinners (opens in new tab) while he was in office, marking the first time in 30 years that a president has skipped the event.
They select the White House china pattern.
Selecting a china pattern for the dishes used in a home might seem like a bygone tradition, but not in the White House. According to Architectural Digest (opens in new tab), First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln began the tradition. After presidents leave office, certain pieces from their china collection are put on display in the White House's china room (opens in new tab).
They don't get paid for their work in the White House.
Lauren A. Wright, author of On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today (opens in new tab), explained to How Stuff Works (opens in new tab) that this is actually a smart political move: "The White House depends so much on their unpaid and unofficial status. There's an advantage to that, to be able to leverage this person who seems like they're apolitical, not vested in political outcomes."
They can influence staffing decisions.
Although their public image is meant to portray them as apolitical, first ladies can—and have—lobbied their husbands to make political decisions involving high-profile staff members. For example, Nancy Reagan wanted President Ronald Reagan to dismiss chief of staff (opens in new tab) Donald Regan in 1987 (he resigned), and Melania Trump publicly called for the dismissal (opens in new tab) of deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel in 2018.
They're allowed to hold jobs.
First Ladies Sarah Polk, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Bess Truman all had jobs while their husbands were in office, according to the National First Ladies' Library (opens in new tab). Teacher and First Lady Jill Biden said that she intends to continue teaching (opens in new tab) while in the White House.
They can work in their husband's administration, too.
Some first ladies have political aspirations of their own. Hillary Clinton (opens in new tab) famously went on to have a political career after her husband’s presidency, but as first lady she worked as the chair (opens in new tab) of the President's Task Force on National Health Care Reform.
The first lady doesn't have to be the president's wife.
A first lady's role is to act as the hostess of the White House. Most often, this role is filled by the president's wife, but that’s not always the case. In several instances where presidents were bachelors or widowers, female relatives and friends (opens in new tab) have stepped in and served in the position.
They are expected to choose a social cause.
The first lady is expected to adopt a social cause (opens in new tab) to promote while her husband is president. Lady Bird Johnson was the first to formally began this tradition (opens in new tab) with her work around environmental protection, though women in the role before her also participated in charitable work.
Their social cause should be relatively uncontroversial.
It's hard to please everyone, but for the most part, first ladies tend to choose social causes that aren't too politically divisive. Melania Trump’s cause was cyberbullying awareness, while Michelle Obama’s was reducing childhood obesity (opens in new tab). Both Laura Bush (opens in new tab) and Barbara Bush (opens in new tab) chose childhood literacy as their philanthropic area of focus.
They don't have to live in the White House.
Melania Trump didn’t move into the White House immediately (opens in new tab) after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017. The Trumps said that this was so she could stay with their son Barron and allow him to finish the remainder of his school year in New York.
They are allowed to have social media accounts.
For modern-day presidents and first ladies, social media is a valuable tool for public engagement. That said, concerns about hackers have prompted some social media platforms like Twitter to implement stricter security measures (opens in new tab) for “high-profile, election-related Twitter accounts.”
The @FLOTUS Twitter account can be passed down.
The official Twitter account for the First Lady of the United States, @FLOTUS (opens in new tab), was passed from Michelle Obama to Melania Trump (opens in new tab) in 2017. Going forward, Twitter has said that the institutional White House Twitter accounts (opens in new tab) will not "automatically retain their existing followers,” meaning when a new first lady takes over, the FLOTUS account will start with zero followers.
They are required to use an official White House email for government business.
Melania Trump came under scrutiny after reports that she had used a personal email account (rather than an official White House account) to discuss items related to the presidential administration. Former White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter told The Washington Post (opens in new tab) that “if she is doing United States government business, she should be using the White House email.”
They don't have to be addressed as "First Lady."
Jacqueline Kennedy reportedly disliked (opens in new tab) the title of “first lady,” because she found it demeaning and thought it sounded “like a saddle horse.” She asked the White House staff to call her “Mrs. Kennedy” instead.
The incoming first lady and her family stay in a historic house the night before Inauguration Day.
It’s tradition for the president, the first lady, and their family to stay at Blair House (opens in new tab), a historic presidential guest house located across the street from the White House, the night before the inauguration. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter began the tradition shortly before his 1977 inauguration.
If a president dies while in office, the first lady and her family are expected to vacate the White House (but not immediately).
There doesn’t seem to be an official rule about this, but Jackie Kennedy lived in the White House for just a couple of weeks (opens in new tab) after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Shortly after her husband’s funeral, she sent a letter to Lyndon Johnson (opens in new tab) in which she wrote, “It mustn’t be very much help to you your first day in office–to hear children on the lawn at recess. It is just one more example of your kindness that you let them stay–I promise–they will soon be gone.”
They almost always send their children to private school.
The children of the president and first lady almost always attend private schools (opens in new tab) rather than D.C. public schools during their parent's presidency. The only exception within the last century has been Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s daughter, Amy, who attended public school.
They (and their family) almost always have a pet.
While there isn’t any official rule about pets in the White House, a majority of presidents and their families have had them while in office. Donald Trump and Melania Trump broke tradition by being the first family in 100 years (opens in new tab) to not have a pet living in the White House.
Many write memoirs after leaving the White House.
While it's certainly not required, Michelle Obama (opens in new tab), Laura Bush (opens in new tab), Barbara Bush (opens in new tab), Hillary Clinton (opens in new tab), Nancy Reagan (opens in new tab), and several other first ladies (opens in new tab) have all released memoirs after their husbands’ presidential terms were finished.
When a former first lady dies, the current government decides how to honor her.
When a former president dies, there are several rules (opens in new tab) and traditions which determine how the country will honor them. For former first ladies, this isn’t really the case. Federal and local governments decide what is appropriate (opens in new tab), and the funerals or memorials are usually smaller and more private.
The role of the first lady is always evolving.
While there are rules and traditions the first lady is expected to follow, the role itself has changed a lot over time, and will likely continue to do so. As the Washington Examiner (opens in new tab) notes, “Because there are no constitutional requirements first ladies have to meet in their public service expectations, the role itself has historically revolved around individual personalities.”