When Bill Clinton takes the stage at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night, he will take one giant step closer to finishing something Hillary Clinton started back in the 90s.
The former President will speak in what’s commonly thought of as the “first lady slot,” a primetime berth where the spouse is typically called upon to promote and humanize the nominee. He will be the first-ever man to play this role at a major party’s convention—and for many Americans, it will likely be the first time they see him as potential First Gentleman rather than 42nd President of the United States.
It seems appropriate that a Clinton would be the one to break this particular gender barrier (glass floor?). If Bill, a former president and, yes, a man, becomes the First Spouse, it seems clear that the role will be dramatically redefined. Indeed, he might be able to bring about the kind of shift that has only been attempted once before—by his wife.
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It became clear that Hillary Clinton would not play the traditional FLOTUS role as early as 1992, when she was still First Lady of Arkansas, working as a corporate lawyer and campaigning for her husband’s presidential run. Responding to then-California Governor Jerry Brown Jr.’s charge that her law firm unfairly profited from state business, she famously said: “This is the sort of thing that happens to women who have their own careers…I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do is fulfill my profession.”
The media spun the comment into an affront to homemakers and traditional American values, but despite the backlash—and a cookie bake-off with Barbara Bush—Clinton persisted in making the first lady role fit her, and not the other way around.
She delivered an address at the U.N.’s Fourth World Congress on Women that 20 years later remains one of the most iconic moments of feminist rhetoric (“Women’s rights are human rights”). She was the first presidential spouse to have an office in the West Wing, from which she spearheaded her husband’s health care reform initiative. In fact, she was so involved in her husband’s day-to-day that pundits made cracks about “Billary.”
Clinton’s successors, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, have had more traditional roles, with each taking on causes rather than policy. Bush championed education and rights for the women of Afghanistan, while Obama has focused on reducing childhood obesity and promoting girls’ education.
It’s far too early to know exactly what role Bill would play in a Hillary Clinton White House, but the candidate has already dropped some broad hints. In a May campaign speech, she told the crowd that she would put her husband “in charge of revitalizing the economy, ’cause he knows what he’s doing.” During an early Democratic debate, she said that she would task him with “special missions” and turn to him for advice. She also noted that she would probably take some of the more ceremonial aspects of the first spouse role—things like picking out flowers and plates for State dinners—herself.
Some have objected to this vision. Writing for the Washington Post, Jill Filipovic argued that, should Bill Clinton become the first gentleman, he should upend traditional gender roles by embracing those domestic duties. “A first man managing the White House household would be just as groundbreaking as a female president,” writes Filipovic.
That perspective, while refreshing, seems a little reductive. After all, what’s point of sitting across the breakfast table from a former President if you’re not going to ask his advice—and put him to work? Clinton has been upfront about her intention to tap her husband for substantive policy jobs, so voters who back her should expect to see Bill play an active role in her administration.
The interesting thing about Bill Clinton stepping into the still-undefined office of First Dude, or First Husband, or whatever else you want to call him, is that he and Hillary can more or less decide for themselves what that role should be. While first ladies have inherited what Betty Ford, wife of 38th president Gerald Ford, described as the constitutional requirement “to be perfect,” Bill—who has already proven that he’s far from— can blaze his own path.
That opportunity, should he get it, could end up being a boon to future first spouses. And while it’s bittersweet that may take a man to finally rid the office of its china-choosing and flower-picking expectations, the next inhabitant of the East Wing will surely be grateful.