The president gives the State of the Union, and the first lady offers her state of their union. A president and a first lady, a husband and a wife, a father and a mother, a man and a woman reflect different kinds of power, purpose and propensity.
Melania Trump puts Frank Sinatra's defiant croon in the present tense: "I'll do it my way." Feminists ought to love her. No one thinks of Trump as an appendage of her man. No one sees her trapped in the role of "wife of," that notorious Washington "title" that once circumscribed the lives of women married to powerful men in the nation's capital.
She's so independent that she won't even take advantage of the easy "gender" appropriation that qualifies any woman, by experience or attainment or not, to sound off as an authority on women's issues. Wearing a pink pussy bow on a blouse is not an authentic feminist statement, nor is her white pantsuit a credential of a suffragette. Her strength lies in her dignified deportment and her thoughtful silence. One cartoonist jokes that her power lies in her gorgeous cheekbones and having the ultimate trophy husband.
The first lady got it right when she was asked by a college student whether she would have married Donald Trump if he weren't rich and powerful. "If I weren't beautiful," she shot back, "do you think he would be with me?"
She makes stylish personal and fashion statements when she chooses to be with her guests at the State of the Union address rather than accompany her husband to the Capitol. She wears long sleeves because they suggest sophistication in an era of gym-trained women showing off toned-up arms in sleeveless dresses in winter. She absents herself when the media circus surrounding her stoops low.
When her husband traveled to Davos, Switzerland, she gave her state of their union by staying home. Bill Maher wisecracked that she visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum instead to "cheer up" after reading that her husband had allegedly romanced a porn star. Maher may think he's funny, but he merely supplies the latest in public crude.
The first lady is an expensive artifice in couturier designs and not the role model type, but she's cool and collected next to her hot, hyper husband. That's a welcome burst of fresh air. No one doubts that his money and her designer taste contribute to her image as a chilled icon with elegant proportions. But in an age when women work so hard to show how angry they are at men, hanging every sexual detail out in public, it's refreshing to watch cool composure confront the stormy weather that circulates around her husband.
With exposure 24/7, it's difficult for any woman to demonstrate self-possession. It's even more difficult when you're married to a man who continually overwhelms others with flamboyant successes and dramatic failures that play out as both personal and political in real time.
As first lady, Hillary Clinton joined an attack pack denigrating her husband's credible accusers as nuts and loonies, part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy." Now, as former first lady, former secretary of state and failed presidential candidate, Clinton tries her hand at comedy. At the Grammys, a video played in which she read an excerpt from a tell-all book that contains a lurid suggestion, which no one believes, that U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley had a fling with the president aboard Air Force One. Why wouldn't any president's wife want a breather from politics like this?
"She may not be progressive," writes Kate Andersen Brower, author of a new book on first ladies, in The New York Times. "She may not be political. And yet Mrs. Trump may end up doing more than any of her predecessors to upend our expectations of the slavish devotion a first lady must display toward her husband."
The shy Mrs. Trump is admired by many for her ability to stake out privacy and elicit sympathy with her poignant desire to spend her Christmas holiday on "a deserted island." It might seem condescending for a woman who has everything to dream about having nothing, but Trump seems not patronizing but merely craving privacy.
She expressed retro feminine power with understated strength to make her son the priority from the moment she was thrust into the spectacle of Washington politics, staying in New York until he finished his school year. The frumpy but forthright first lady Bess Truman, who took no sass from anyone and was always the lady not taking it, refused to give press conferences in the tradition of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, telling reporters: "I am not the one who is elected. I have nothing to say to the public." How quaint. And how quaint that we've got a first lady with independence like that again.