Lady Bird Johnson, wife of the 36th president of the United States, once quipped: “The first lady is an unpaid public servant elected by one person — her husband.”
Nevertheless, due to their visibility and position, they are under the microscope as much as the men who “elected” them.
Tough luck for Melania Trump, who is reportedly miserable under the intense scrutiny she is getting just because she’s (unlucky enough to be) married to Donald.
Such was not the case with her predecessor, Michelle Obama, who embraced the role with grace and enthusiasm. One of the most visible, popular and activist first ladies of our time, I wondered initially — as many others may have — if such a strong, independent, smart, modern woman, could be the nation’s FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States).
The position essentially meant giving up her own career and taking on a new one, which was not her choice. Not only did she graduate from Princeton and Harvard, she was Barack’s mentor at the law firm where she worked. And now she has to play a “secondary” role to her husband? I mean, she’s as alpha as he is!
After some initial awkwardness, she infused the role of FLOTUS with flair, charisma and a fun-loving spirit. During the election campaign, she proved herself to be a hell of a speaker too, a worthy counterpart to Barack, who is famous for his oratorical skills. A decade under the public microscope, amazingly, she has lived a public life without sacrificing her privacy and authenticity.
Yes, she made history by being the first African-American FLOTUS, but more importantly they both made history by setting an example as a democratic family where the love, respect and support is truly mutual and complementary. In the end, a democratic society starts with democracy in the family.
Do first ladies always have to be wives of the president? No, they can also be the wife of a governor, like Veronica Tan, who is married to Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, making her the First Lady of Jakarta.
I first noticed her during the Jakarta gubernatorial election campaign. Besides the competition between the candidates themselves, the wives were also being observed and compared.
I watched an interview of Veronica, 39, and Annisa Pohan, 35, the wife of Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, son of Indonesia’s sixth president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Annisa was asked how she felt about her husband’s preparedness and readiness to become governor. In a haughty voice she replied: “I can’t really answer as I don’t really have a grasp of the issue. Maybe you could ask my husband directly.”
Being the incumbent’s wife, Veronica was asked her plans for the future if Ahok were reelected as governor. She said, there were still many things that needed to be done, as they were not developing buildings, but human beings.
It takes time, she went on, to change mindsets, build character, teach skills and develop a work ethos and a deep commitment on both sides.
She then elaborated on the program to create better welfare and prosperity for the citizens of Jakarta over the next five years.
Wow, what a contrast in the answers of the two women! While both of them have university degrees, Annisa is a former model and actress, and a socialite known for her penchant for expensive bags and accessories.
You could say Annisa is a modern version of the Dharma Wanita wife, the civil servants wives organization that dominated women’s groups in the New Order, whose pseudo-power was derived from being appendages to their husbands.
Veronica, or Vero, as she is often called, married at age 19, stopped her architectural studies but resumed and completed them after she had two children.
Naturally attractive, she is known for her minimalist style: no make-up and short hair tied back with an elastic band when she goes on her blusukan (impromptu visits), a practice popularized by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo when he was governor.
As Jakarta’s First Lady, Veronica chairs the Family Welfare Movement (PKK), the Jakarta chapter of the Indonesian Cancer Foundation (YKI) and the National Crafts Council (Dekranas).
The PKK was set up in the Sukarno era, but became big under Soeharto, as a vehicle for village women. A state-sponsored program, it was considered to have burdened women more than helped them. Veronica promised to change the negative stigma of the PKK as being just for women who have “nothing better to do.”
She wanted to revive the PKK as a center for integrated health services (Posyandu), children’s immunization, and training center to learn various skills, such as sewing and home gardening.
Some of the funds for these activities come from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs of corporations, in addition to the government and community generated funds.
Being married to someone as fiery, driven and indefatigable as Ahok can’t be easy, especially having to be on the receiving end of so much hatred due to being Chinese-Christian, not to mention the anti-blasphemy allegations against him.
I see this couple as being similar to the Michelle-Barack model. Vero is a feminine, milder version of Ahok, imbued with a similar idealism, social consciousness and sense of purpose to make real change that “people can believe in.” What Ahok has done, has already shown very visible and tangible results.
Veronica, like Michelle, has had to navigate the prejudices of gender and ethnicity to win the hearts and minds of the people.
Perhaps she can’t or doesn’t want to be as fashionable and cool as Michelle, but she certainly has that same accessibility, and be both normal and inspirational at the same time.
Vero is an activist First Lady and is certainly the antithesis of the outdated Dharma Wanita wife model.
Apropos activists, on March 4, leading up to International Women’s Day, which falls on March 8, about 1000 women and human rights activists, students, workers, artists, housewives, migrant workers, disabled women, from 33 organizations, staged a Jakarta Women’s March.
They made eight demands revolving around pluralism, human, sexual and reproductive rights, anti-violence against women, and the push to pass various laws to protect women, LGBT and other minorities, increase women’s political representation and to protect the environment and women’s livelihood.
While Vero didn’t participate in the March, these demands coincide with her concerns. Whatever your position in society, in or out of the government, with our solidarity and actions, we can all make a difference.