Ideas

The Word

‘First lady’: An archaic term for a dynamic role

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 08: First lady Michelle Obama speaks during the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities poetry reading to honor student poets at the White House, September 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. The first lady honored five students with the nation's highest honor for teen poets presenting original work. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
First lady Michelle Obama. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

You don’t hear much about “ladies” anymore, with one exception: the first lady. Maybe it’s our love of celebrities or just a desperate desire to stop worrying about who is (and will be) the most powerful person in the world, but first ladies are an eternally popular topic. “First lady” hasn’t, however, referred to the president’s wife for as long as you’d think, though the term itself is far older than America and soaked in old-fashioned ideas about women that are challenged by the evolution of the presidential partner’s time in office. “First lady” hence is a lexical paradox: an old-timey, set-in-stone term for an increasingly vital role.

Just when “first lady” was first applied to the US president’s wife is unclear. Many give credit to Zachary Taylor, who supposedly referred to his deceased wife as “first lady” in her eulogy, but this legend lacks evidence. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first US-centric example is from an 1870 Detroit Free Press article, during the first term of Ulysses S. Grant: “We know who is first lady, and we know who is second lady — the wives of the President and Vice President have unquestionably these distinctions.” Yet the first definitive reference to an American first lady is an unusual case: Harriet Lane was the niece of President James Buchanan, a bachelor, and periodicals called Lane “first lady” during Buchanan’s presidency of 1857 to 1861.

But even if the term wasn’t passed down from Martha Washington, “first lady” has a much longer lineage than America. Its older use, referring to important women such as queens and noblewomen, goes back to at least the mid-1600s.

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More recently, though, “first lady” is often the start of a larger phrase, such as “first lady of the White House” or “first lady of the land.” Fans of the highly quotable cult classic “The Big Lebowski” will recall its version, when the title character’s butler Brandt makes the boast: “And this picture was taken when Mrs. Reagan was first lady — of the nation. Not of California.” In fact, that’s more than a braggy line by a pompous character. “First lady of the nation” has been an established expression since at least the 1800s. Of course, the title “first lady of the United States” gave us FLOTUS, which is more current and, based on the research of noted etymologist Barry Popik, was first found in 1983, in an entirely separate reference to Nancy Reagan. Similarly, throughout history, several actresses have been known as “the first lady of the theater.”

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Once upon a time, first ladies went by titles that sound a bit bizarre to the modern ear, such as “Mrs. President” and “lady presidentress.” If “presidentress” doesn’t roll off the tongue, that may be because such obviously gendered words have gone out of fashion. The suffixes -tress and -ess used to get attached to every word imaginable, creating some real mouthfuls such as “admiraless” (the wife of an admiral, not a female admiral) and “apess” (a female ape). Other strange examples included “assasinatress,” “cousiness,” “fornicatress,” “greengroceress,” “inventress,” “murdermongeress,” “pythoness,” “revengeress,” “studentess,” and “wolfess.” By comparison, “first lady” is almost as contemporary as “humblebrag” or “mansplain.”

Still, to be honest, the main reason “first lady” sounds like a remnant of a bygone age is the word “lady,” which feels a bit Paleolithic amid a campaign season that may see our first woman president. The first uses of “lady,” found in Old English, refer to a female head of household, so this is a word with intrinsic power and class associations. Traditionally, ladies have had subjects, servants, and often slaves. Of course, the term also constricts women, who are still too often told to “act like a lady,” which usually demands being demure and subservient while languishing several floors beneath the glass ceiling. Not everyone, however, is so quick to throw the “lady” baggage overboard. The group Ladies Against Feminism takes a clear if counterintuitive stance, rejecting the implied equality of woman and longing for the days of ladies and gentlemen of yore.

For most of us, though, the meaning of “lady” has evolved, even if older associations haven’t evaporated completely. Anne Curzan, an English professor at the University of Michigan and regular contributor to the Lingua Franca blog, said in an e-mail that in the 19th century “ ‘lady’ was the more polite term and ‘woman’ carried more negative connotations — but then ‘woman’ was reclaimed in the 20th century.” As for “first lady,” Curzan says, “The question in this case would be whether as a fixed expression, ‘first lady’ is immune or at least less affected by the connotations that ‘lady’ by itself can carry.”

In other words, how ladylike is the title “first lady” itself? That tension is reflected in how different first ladies approach the role. Laura Bush’s chosen cause of promoting literacy, an uncontroversial goal, fit well with her more traditional image; Hillary Clinton’s contentious time leading the charge for expanded access to health care spoke to her more politically engaged approach. People offended by either approach can and do refer to the “worst lady.”

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This campaign season has welcomed plenty of conversation about what to call Bill Clinton should his wife be elected in November — Katy Waldman jokingly suggests “first bubba” and “dude prime” in Slate. A bigger question, though, and equally relevant is whether we’ll ever get to rename the first lady (man or woman) something more appropriate, such as “first woman” or “first spouse.” When women begin taking their place in the Oval Office, the situation will further redefine the roles and nomenclature of the first family. The only safe prediction is that the titles lady president and presidentress will be not be making a comeback.

Mark Peters is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.