As an American citizen, I have been taught to believe that the United States is a model for the world to follow. One that is fair and fights for equality. But as I looked at the First Lady and Presidential exhibits in the National Museum of American History, the US has a while to go before it is a “fair” country. In this current election, there are a few major anomalies. First, for the first time, a woman is a major party candidate for president, and that woman also has the chance to be in both the First Lady and the Presidential exhibits in just a few short months.
Hillary Clinton has received widespread criticism based on her past as a first lady. Although it may not seem to be this way, simple examination of the insults being thrown at Clinton explain this point very well. The most common example is that people don’t want a third “Bill Clinton Presidency”. There are a few things wrong with this statement at first glance. First of all, Hillary Clinton is running for president, not Bill. Also, critics use Hillary’s collaboration on the health care reforms that his campaign was based upon. Hillary was criticized for offering her intelligence to her husband on a project he was working on. Many people feel threatened by this because they want to pigeon-hole the First Lady into a ditzy wife that just picks out porcelain and picks a hobby to keep her busy. Although that may have been acceptable in the early 20th century and earlier, it is the 21st century and as Americans we should be able to accept the intelligence of half of the country’s population.
The First Lady’s Exhibit in the National Museum of American History features the First Ladies though a one-dimensional and misogynistic lens. One of the first cases features President Grover Cleveland’s wife, Frances’s wedding dress. Instead of speaking to the merit of her accomplishments, the plaque simply says that the dress hanging before your eyes ended the short-lived bustle trend in the 19th century. Additionally, each first lady’s china was featured along the walls. Beside each woman’s name was the reason why the porcelain was chosen. Without fail, it was related to their husbands’ accomplishments and not about their own. This one sided view of the position as First Lady points to the blatant sexism that is present in society today.
Within the Presidential exhibit, each of the six roles of the president was featured with a few presidents and examples of the great deeds they accomplished under the specific role. Additionally, a large portion of the exhibit was dedicated to the role of the Commander-in-Chief. This role is consistently regarded in relation to power and thus utilizes rhetoric to insinuate that the president is powerful. One might question how the exhibit would have to change if Hillary Clinton is elected as our 45th president.
In both of these exhibits, rhetoric is the foundation on which the museum chose to showcase the history of First Families. In the First Lady exhibit, lights had a rosey tint as opposed to the steely gray that was found in the Presidential exhibit. Additionally, the First Ladies were mentioned in the Presidential exhibit only when displaying the clothes and toys of the First Children. These subtle hints that are found everywhere in American culture, indoctrinate individuals to view women as accessories to their husbands’ power and that men need to be powerful and feared in order to be deemed a “man”.
Overall, I was sadly not surprised that even the Smithsonian features a sexist and misogynistic theme in their exhibits about the residents of the White House; That an institution that millions of children visit every year to learn about our country is doing nothing to try and change this stereotype linking femininity to weakness and masculinity to strength. Therefore, I believe it is this example of negative education that creates a stigma about voting for Hillary Clinton just because of her relation to Bill Clinton and her past as an unconventional First Lady. Is there a chance for us, as Americans, to recover from this societal standard of misogyny? Only we can determine the answer to that question.