Chiefs of staff to First Ladies are often overlooked. Indeed, many are unaware that the position exists in the first place. While the role is currently vacant, in this article we highlight the history and significance of the chief of staff role within The Office of the First Lady.
The role of the First Lady, as we know it now, has been defined relatively recently in American history. In the early days of the presidency, First Ladies were largely removed from politics. Instead, many nineteenth-century First Ladies were relegated to hosting social functions and running domestic life.
As women’s standing in American society expanded, so too did the role and influence of First Ladies. Eleanor Roosevelt was among the first to openly advocate for political causes, championing the women’s and civil rights movements of the time. She took up an active role in her husband’s administration, travelling the United States to report on the implementation of the New Deal. Eleanor Roosevelt was also the first to hire her own “personal secretary”, laying the groundwork for future First Ladies to expand both the scope of their responsibilities and their personal staff.
The Office of the First Lady was first termed as such in 1977 under Rosalynn Carter. Within this newly designated Office, Rosalynn decided to appoint her very own chief of staff, selecting former White House Chief of Protocol Edith J. Dobelle. In a 1979 interview with the New York Times, Edith described her newly acquired role in a manner that many chiefs of staff will relate to. Edith said: “I want the office to run smoothly when [Mrs Carter]’s there as well as when she’s away.” While little was reported on Edith’s personal accomplishments during her tenure in the role, the press were shocked to discover that Edith was to be compensated at the same level as the president’s chief of staff. Her equal salary can be interpreted both as a testament to the importance of the chief of staff position and as a statement on the fair compensation of women.
Since Carter’s presidency, First Ladies’ chiefs of staff have carried on with little public attention and accolade for their work. Today, the role stands vacant after First Lady Jill Biden’s chief of staff Julissa Reynoso was appointed as the United States Ambassador to Spain. Still, it is important to draw attention to the value and history of the chief of staff to the First Lady role as it mirrors greater societal shifts as First Ladies, and women in general, claim more political space.
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