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Sara Netanyahu and Melania Trump
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Tami Arad
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It’s time to free first ladies from ‘national geisha’ role
Op-ed: In an era where women fly to the moon, leaders’ wives remain part of a well-oiled, ceremonial and anachronistic machine, which hasn’t changed much since the times Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott wrote about.
I, too, believe in women’s skills and in their ability to reach the top. We live in an era where women serve as prime ministers and president, so why isn’t the role of “the woman by his side” cancelled? Why does the US president in 2018 need a first lady hanging on his arm, marching by his side dressed in the latest fashion, as the world discusses her magnificent figure?

 

 

Sara Netanyahu's image, unlike Melania Trump, is far from being the icing on the cake. Mrs. Netanyahu is a dominant woman, she is as occupied with her image as an educated woman as she is with her appearance, and—at least according to reports—her involvement exceeds the normal involvement in ceremonial issues.

 

Nevertheless, she officially holds the role of an escort and a hostess. Mrs. Netanyahu didn’t reinvent the wheel; the debate is over how she upgraded it.

 

Sara Netanyahu and Melania Trump with their husbands. These women are integrated into a political show not as lead or supporting actresses, but in a minimizing decorative role (Photo: Haim Zach/GPO)
Sara Netanyahu and Melania Trump with their husbands. These women are integrated into a political show not as lead or supporting actresses, but in a minimizing decorative role (Photo: Haim Zach/GPO)

 

They say that in the days of Israel’s first prime minister, everything had to be approved by his wife Paula. Statesmen or politicians who wished to talk to David Ben-Gurion on the phone were screened by Paula, and when the Foreign Ministry organized a meal for a distinguished guest, Paula would review the guest list and cross out the names she didn’t approve of.

 

This may be gossip, but the public is familiar with the essence of these stories. After Paula, we had dominant prime ministers and presidents’ wives like Ofira Navon and Leah Rabin, and diffident ones like Aliza Begin, Shulamit Shamir and Sonia Peres. The public actually sympathized more with the women who were perceived as less involved in their husbands’ political life. In other words, the Israeli public prefers its leaders’ wives to be less powerful.

 

The expectation that the first or second lady should escort her husband on official events or serve as hostess is part of the problem, as this role is imposed on the woman by the state without her being elected or paid for it. This may not be an official role, but if the woman aspires to get involved and influence—she may abuse the power she has been given.

 

Some people might say that a woman whispers in her husband’s ear in any event, and my answer is that the definition is significant. As soon as the rules are clear, the slippery slope will be curbed. The state won’t have to fund a secretary for the first lady or invent ceremonial roles for her, and she will be free to practice her profession like she did before her husband was elected.

 

No one is interested in the suits worn by Angela Merkel’s husband  (Photo: EPA)
No one is interested in the suits worn by Angela Merkel’s husband (Photo: EPA)

 

As someone who has met leaders’ wives in my unofficial capacity as a “captive’s wife,” I can tell you that I left the meetings feeling like I had visited the set of an unsophisticated show. There may be leaders’ wives who manage to infuse their role with humanitarian content, but I believe we can cautiously determine that democratic states should give up the role tailored for a woman as a result of her marriage.

 

In an era where women fly to the moon, a leader’s wife trailing her husband on the red carpet doesn't necessarily encourage women’s empowerment. These women are integrated into a political show not as lead or supporting actresses, but in a minimizing decorative role. The current state of affairs is the same state of affairs that existed centuries ago. Leaders’ wives remain part of a well-oiled, ceremonial and anachronistic machine, which is more suitable for the times Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott wrote about.

 

I believe it’s time for a change. It’s time to free the leaders’ wives from their role as the “national geisha.” As a first step, we may consider adopting the conduct of female leaders’ husbands. No one is interested in the suits worn by Angela Merkel’s husband and no one gets worked up over the absence or presence of Theresa May’s husband. Because when the man is the husband by her side, he avoids sticking to the cake as the icing. I wonder who will be the first lady to consciously split from the cake and receive strong female support.

 


First published: 03.08.18, 18:12
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