In January 1972, news agencies heralded a groundbreaking visit to three African nations by then-first lady Pat Nixon. Her official purpose was to represent President Richard Nixon at the inauguration of Liberian President William Tolbert. But she also conferred with Tolbert and other African leaders about U.S. foreign aid and apartheid in South Africa.
“Never before had an American first lady visited Africa, acted as the nation’s official representative at an event of state, or conferred with heads of state on behalf of her husband,” Time magazine declared.
I thought of Pat Nixon as I read about first lady Melania Trump’s four-country tour of Africa last week, which was arguably more historic. To paraphrase Time, never before has an American first lady visited Africa — or anywhere else — on her behalf, not her husband’s. A former model, Melania Trump might one day be seen as the woman who broke the model for presidential wives.
At first glance, her activities fell into the traditions laid down by her predecessors. She visited a clinic in Ghana, attended a ceremony at a Malawi school and fed young elephants in Kenya. But Melania Trump visited Africa to promote her “Be Best” campaign for children’s well-being, not to support President Donald Trump or his policies. Indeed, to some observers, it seemed like she subverted them.
In Malawi, where the U.S. ambassador presented 1.4 million school books courtesy of the Agency for International Development, news accounts noted that the Trump administration had tried to slash U.S. Agency for International Development budget by 30 percent. Critics also highlighted the president’s comments about limiting American aid to “friendly” countries.
In Kenya, the first lady visited a site where authorities had burned ivory in an effort to curtail its trade. Conservationists pointed out that the Trump administration lifted a U.S. ban on importing elephant trophies. So here too, it seemed, she subtly critiqued her husband’s policies.
Perhaps. But the effort to parse Melania Trump’s views of the president negates her real achievement, which has been to move beyond his shadow. Whatever she might think of Donald Trump, Melania Trump made it clear that she wasn’t in Africa to speak for him.
And that makes her different from all other U.S. first ladies, who dutifully supported their husbands’ agendas. Rosalynn Carter traveled in 1977 to six Latin American countries and Jamaica, where she promoted Jimmy Carter’s policies on human rights and arms control. Hillary Clinton led a U.S. delegation to the 1995 world conference on women in Beijing, where she declared that women’s rights were human rights and vice versa. Laura Bush stressed female empowerment in three trips to Afghanistan; she also attended the inauguration of Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman president of an African country. And Michelle Obama visited several countries on behalf girls’ education.
But all of these first ladies served as official representatives of the president, even as they lobbied their husbands behind the scenes to take up women’s causes. That brought two different kinds of criticism. Some Americans complained that presidential wives held too much sway over policy, while others worried that they exerted this influence solely by virtue of their marriage to the president. Call it the first lady’s double bind: You’re either the power behind the throne or an appendage to it.
Melania Trump could be the first lady to escape from that trap. President Trump tweeted a note of praise for her, proclaiming that “Our country’s great First lady, Melania, is doing really well in Africa.” But whatever she’s doing, it’s not for him. She’s on her own.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania.