As Melania Trump prepares for her big featured speech on the second night of the Republican National Convention, it’s worth looking at how this apparent institution of First Lady addresses to national party conventions got started. It would be easy to assume that it’s merely a reflection of the gradual arc toward equality of women in politics as in other walks of life, and that’s partially true, though no First Lady has ever wielded the actual power Edith Wilson possessed during the last two years of her husband Woodrow’s stroke-afflicted presidency, beginning before women even obtained the vote.
But the first U.S. First Lady to speak at a party convention, in 1940, was very much a political power in her own right, and de facto co-leader (along with soon-to-be Vice-President Henry Wallace) of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party: Eleanor Roosevelt. She also spoke on behalf of her husband, who did not appear at that convention out of concerns over a too aggressive assault on the two-term tradition FDR was breaking that year.
After that pioneering speech by the longest-serving FLOTUS ever, no First Lady spoke at a national party convention for 32 years: not Bess Truman, not Mamie Eisenhower, not Jackie Kennedy, not Lady Bird Johnson. The first Republican First Lady to address a convention was Pat Nixon in 1972, the year when her husband orchestrated the most tightly controlled party convention in history to that date. Mrs. Nixon, largely remembered as an innocent victim of her husband’s many sins (among them saying during a debate with JFK, “America cannot stand pat”), was actually a veteran campaigner and the most traveled First Lady before Hillary Clinton.
Betty Ford (probably kept away from the 1976 podium thanks to her feminist views) and Rosalynn Carter managed to avoid convention speeches, but the mold was finally broken by Nancy Reagan in 1984 and 1988. Since then, every sitting FLOTUS has addressed the party convention. More recently, aspiring First Ladies (and one aspiring First Gentleman, Bill Clinton) have usually made a speaking appearance as well — though one, Tipper Gore, simply participated in the most famous convention kiss ever.
Though Melania Trump is by no means the kind of conventional political character that most recent First Ladies have been, her significance as a validator and humanizer for her crude and often hateful husband, a proud womanizer accused of serial sexual assaults, made her participation all but mandatory in 2016. But that address generated unexpected trouble by appearing to lift whole passages from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech.
A speech by Melania Trump at the 2020 convention was taken for granted; it certainly would have been conspicuous had she failed to speak, since four of her stepchildren and two of their significant others are on the schedule in the sort of dynastic overkill that only this president would dare flaunt. Again, her role is to humanize her husband during a convention in which he is often being presented (by his own imperial choice, of course) as a vengeful warlord. No one expects Melania Trump to be another Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton, and she needs strictly to avoid further comparisons to Michelle Obama. If she can get through this appearance with politely positive reviews, she will have done her job.