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.
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, explained in an interview with ABC News that "some parts are essentially historic rooms and belong to the American people, not to the families who live there."
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.
While they're not required to call upon interior designers for decor help, many in recent history 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.
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.
Technically, gifts that are given to the president and the first lady from foreign governments are considered gifts to the United States, 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.
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, 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.
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, former First Lady Michelle Obama revealed this nugget: "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."
The White House Historical Association 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.
According to the White House's website, "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.
In 2001, President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush hosted the first official White House Hanukkah party, 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 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 First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies, wrote.
Just like everyone else, the president's family is expected to pay for items like food, clothing, and toiletries. According to The Guardian, the White House usher's office prepares a monthly itemized bill of these items and sends it to the president and first lady.
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 and Michelle Obama 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.
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 while Michelle Obama used stylist Meredith Koop. Before her, Laura Bush worked with fashion designer Michael Faircloth.
Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama 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 in 2018.
In 2013, Barack Obama signed a law establishing lifetime Secret Service protection 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.
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.
Presidents and their spouses get a security detail for life, but federal law states that "protection of a spouse shall terminate in the event of remarriage."
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, 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 while he was in office, marking the first time in 30 years that a president has skipped the event.
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, 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.
Lauren A. Wright, author of On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today, explained to How Stuff Works 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."
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 Donald Regan in 1987 (he resigned), and Melania Trump publicly called for the dismissal of deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel in 2018.
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. Teacher and First Lady Jill Biden said that she intends to continue teaching while in the White House.
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 have stepped in and served in the position.
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. Both Laura Bush and Barbara Bush chose childhood literacy as their philanthropic area of focus.
Melania Trump didn’t move into the White House immediately 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.