Those damn cookies

First ladies are too often defined by style rather than substance. It’s a tiresome narrative (GOP women: Stepford; Democratic women: modern) that doesn’t reflect the real world.

Ever since Hillary Rodham Clinton framed herself as a non-cookie-baking first lady, we've had to examine each potential successor within the cookie context.

Is she a traditional wife or a modern woman? As though the two are mutually exclusive.

Invariably, the Democratic spouse is portrayed as the power wife — independent and ambitious. (See Hillary's health care.) The Republican wife is viewed as homier, her interests focused on husband and hearth. (See Pat Nixon, Nancy Reagan and even Laura Bush smiling demurely by their husbands' sides.)

The subtext, of course, is that the Republican wife parks her sensible shoes under a bed in Stepford, the perfectly manicured exurb where women with unmovable hair dote on their men and deliver perfectly crisped Toll House cookies to their well-scrubbed children.

By contrast, the Democrat wife, though busy with mergers and acquisitions, manages to make it to her daughter's wrestling match and her son's ballet recital. She buys organic cookies at Whole Foods and reminds voters that her husband, who is anatomically intact by the grace of She Who Must Be Obeyed, still takes out the trash.

As recently as July, The New York Times buffed these stereotypes in an article about defining the first lady's public image. Hillary Clinton was described as "a modern career woman" and Laura Bush as "low key and low profile," who "put tradition ahead of modernity."

Cindy McCain was described as "embracing the Bush model" — "familiar and safe to most Americans." And Michelle Obama was characterized as trying to strike a balance: "A woman who is happy at home with the children, her top priority, but who also finds time to hit the road a couple of days a week on behalf of her husband." She even plans to speak at the Democratic convention. But let's be clear. She is not "just staying home and baking cookies."

Well, thank goodness. Heaven forbid any woman aspiring to the White House should bake a cookie for her little bundles of joy.
While there's some truth to all stereotypes, the differences here have more to do with style than content.

Anything but low profile
Laura Bush is certainly low key, but she's hardly low profile. She has traveled to 76 countries, including three trips to Afghanistan, and has given hundreds of speeches, including at the 2000 and 2004 Republican conventions. She is also slated to speak at the upcoming one.

Bush also has worked aggressively for women's rights around the globe. She has been a vocal advocate for the release of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader. Bush plans to travel this week to the Thai-Burma border to visit a refugee camp and a clinic where thousands cross the border to receive free treatment.

In the Middle East, Bush has been a tireless champion of women's health. Traveling throughout the region last fall with the first lady, I was witness to her effectiveness as she persuaded kings, sheiks and princes in that sternly patriarchal part of the world to sign on to her breast cancer awareness and research initiative.

She charmed them with a gentle, dare I say, womanly, touch. No other kind would have worked as well. Thanks to her efforts, millions of women have found their voices to speak openly about a previously taboo subject. Untold numbers will survive breast cancer because of her work.

Likewise, Cindy McCain, though quiet and perhaps shy, is a globe-trotting activist. Her philanthropic accomplishments are too numerous to list here, but highlights include founding and running the American Voluntary Medical Team from 1988 to 1995, providing emergency medical care to impoverished children.

Recently, she returned from Rwanda — not exactly a spa destination — where she had visited in 1994 at the height of the genocide that took at least 800,000 lives. Writing in The Wall Street Journal last month, the senator's wife (a business executive) reported that women, who own 41% of Rwandan businesses, are leading a renaissance in their damaged country.

Unquestionably, the first lady role is evolving with each new White House occupant. Each brings her own style and interests to the position, and each has to find that fragile balance between what is individually comfortable and what the American people will accept.

'She isn't just any wife'
As the person who sleeps with the most powerful man on the planet, she isn't just any wife, and Americans have a right to scrutinize her public role — but fairly. Already, Michelle Obama has felt the harshness that sometimes is directed toward women who speak too fiercely and has said she will take some cues from the current first lady. Smart woman.

Whoever comes next, Michelle Obama or Cindy McCain, no one should confuse low key with low profile. Nor should people presume that traditional displays of spousal support equate to a less important role. Laura Bush has left deep footprints around the globe that any subsequent first lady will be challenged to fill.

And she did it all by being first a lady — one who does not, for the record, bake cookies. The White House has a pastry chef.

Those damn cookies - Opinion - USATODAY.com