When Hillary Clinton Was America's Hostess

Before Hillary Clinton became a presidential candidate, secretary of state, or New York senator, she was one of the most controversial first ladies of the 20th century.

Lauren Oyler

Lauren Oyler

Photo by Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

It's the year 2000, and two of the most powerful women in the world are sitting on a red couch talking about home decorating. "I got pictures of his dining room, and there were stuffed heads of animals that he had shot all over!" one of them exclaims, laughing. "And I said, 'Well, we'll bring back the mahogany, and we'll bring back something of the color scheme, and the drapes, but we're not bringing back the heads."

"I like taxidermy," the other says, "but I don't think I'd like it here!"

This is how Hillary Clinton and Martha Stewart talk about the former's decoration of the White House Red Room, which Clinton had wanted to restore to the days of the prolific hunter Teddy Roosevelt, until she realized what that would entail. It's part of a special called "A Visit to the White House," which was filmed at the end of the Bill Clinton administration as Hillary was about to take office as the junior senator of New York.

The focus of the segment is what it's like to be, in Stewart's words, "the custodian of the White House": whether Chelsea was able to have slumber parties, how former first ladies had influenced Clinton's renovation decisions, and what it was like to plan and entertain at state dinners. They also discuss Clinton's book, An Invitation to the White House, which Martha says makes her "jealous" because of Hillary's status as America's most famous hostess: "I've written a book about entertaining, but here the first lady of the United States gets to write An Invitation to the White House." Nevertheless, Martha sounds skeptical when she asks Hillary what it's like to preside over state dinners: "Did they really interest you, these dinners? Did you really enjoy going to them night after night?"

Yes, Clinton replies, though there were challenges. For example, the administration had to make choices, like when it decided to move from French service (almost-cooked food is brought out on a cart and finished in front of the guest) to plated service (food is prepared and plated completely before it's brought out to you). If I had a rich aunt, I imagine her conversations with her husband's business partners' wives would sound something like this.

Clinton had just been elected to the Senate from New York, and here she was being subjected to the usual first lady–style interview about drapes and sleepovers.

On one level, the interview seems to represent the sexism female public figures have to go through. Clinton had just been elected to the Senate from New York, and here she was being subjected to the usual first lady–style interview about drapes and sleepovers. This despite Clinton's long-standing, often controversial rebellion against the stultifying limits of being a political wife: During the 1992 campaign, in response to some questions about her work as a lawyer, she famously said, "I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession." She was the epitome of the 90s career woman—if her chat about curtains with Martha Stewart at the decade's close seemed strained and ridiculous, that's because it probably was.

But the interview also highlights how Clinton embodied the tensions of the first lady job as it has transformed since the second half of the 20th century: More than any other first lady, she had to balance the idea that a woman shouldn't be confined to wallpaper decisions with the political need to avoid diminishing the "impact"—Stewart's word—of what has traditionally been known as "women's work." (Thought it wasn't like she didn't dive into the more ceremonial aspects of the job with gusto: She told Stewart that she sent her decorator, Kaki Hockersmith, to France to research 19th-century wallpaper design for the White House Blue Room.)

The first lady role began as and continues to be an unofficial one. While the wives of presidents always acted as hostesses for their husbands and sometimes—as with Dolley Madison—took on more public roles, the term didn't appear in print until 1860, when a newspaper used it to refer to Harriet Lane, who served as first lady to the only bachelor president, James Buchanan. From there, first ladies like Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, and Betty Ford expanded the job in different ways. According to Anthony Eksterowicz, a professor emeritus of political science at James Madison University who has studied first ladies, Rosalynn Carter deserves special mention for dramatically increasing integration between the first lady's office and the West Wing; she was the first to hire a chief-of-staff for herself, and she also sat in on cabinet meetings and had her staff attend daily briefings in the West Wing.

Today, first ladies oversee large staffs and spearhead specific initiatives (that often focus on families and children—Laura Bush promoted reading and education, Michelle Obama focused on fighting childhood obesity), though they are still not paid for their work. They have to straddle the line between being symbols of American womanhood and wielding the massive power their position grants them.

"There's a mistaken assumption about first ladies having to do the ceremonial when they would rather be in the political or policy area," Eksterowicz says. "The fact of the matter is, they have to do both"—even as "the ceremonial responsibilities are shifted over for other people to take care of" more than they used to be, the first lady still has to make a big deal about how much she cares about children, families, and building a home. She still has to pretend like she's doing the curtains-and-cookies stuff, even though she's probably not.

An illustrative anecdote: In 1995, Clinton participated in a short Christmas special with Martha Stewart in which the pair hang a gold wreath—with 50 acorns representing the 50 states—on the Truman Balcony to celebrate Christmas at the White House. The mood is cheerful and warm; Hillary, dressed in a bright-red coat, matching gloves, and huge gold earrings, declares, in her hokey, everywoman accent, "We'll be home for the holidays." Shortly after the cameras stopped rolling, Stewart packed up the wreath and went home.

In the wake of that "baked cookies and had teas" remark in 1992, the future first lady did an interview with Katie Couric in part to reassure skittish voters that she wasn't gunning for actual political power. "I'm not interested in any kind of paid position or cabinet position or anything formal or official," Clinton told Couric. "What I would like to do is work on that issues that I've been involved in for more than 20 years, primarily children and families issues, and public education." Later, Couric asks about Bill's comments that he wanted Hillary to be very active on the policy side. "Do you think the America people are ready for a first lady who is that involved at a policy-making level at the White House?"

Obviously, that sounds a lot like, "Is America ready for a female president?" If there's a straight line from 1992 to 2016, it's that maybe the first question had to be asked before the second. Feminism is about to gain a very nice, neat narrative: If and when Clinton is elected, the first lady who took the most shit because of the role will get to be the one to end the job as we know it. For all the jokes about Bill being "first gentleman" in the gender-swapped Clinton administration reboot, as Hillary herself has noted, he's not going to be doing "state dinners, picking out china or floral arrangements, or anything like that." Justice would demand that Bill spend some time explaining his upholstery choices on national TV, but if Hillary's presidency means that people married to the president no longer have to conform to gender stereotypes, that's a fine consolation prize.

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