Things First Ladies Can't Do When They're In The White House

Becoming the first lady might initially seem like a glamorous position. After all, first ladies serve many roles during their time in the White House doing humanitarian work and hosting political events, all while appearing incredibly polished in their chic ensembles. Still, the title comes attached to a long list of responsibilities. While there isn't an official handbook on the subject, there are still certain expectations that a first lady is expected to meet while in the White House in order to uphold tradition and stay in public favor.

After all, being the partner of the most powerful leader in the United States means that first ladies often have to follow strict and sometimes downright strange rules. While some of these guides are clearly in place for safety measures, other responsibilities like choosing china patterns are more of a time-honored tradition followed to avoid public backlash than an official rule. While being the first lady definitely earns some respectable perks, there is still a long list of things that are simply not considered acceptable for a first lady.

First ladies aren't allowed to drive themselves around

Those who enjoy being behind the wheel should probably reconsider being first ladies. During her time as the first lady, Michelle Obama spoke with Stephen Colbert about the changes in her life and the losses that came with holding her title. "I want to drive," she stated, telling the host that this was one of the things that she wished she could do while living at the White House. Unfortunately for her, losing her driving privileges was one disadvantage that continued even after Barack Obama's presidency ended. In an interview with People, she addressed some of the drastic changes to the family's life that came along with her husband's presidency. "No driving for me. We still live in a bubble," she stated.

However, it would seem that becoming a passenger during and after being the first lady is commonplace. An article from the Daily Mail revealed that former first lady Hillary Clinton hasn't driven a car since the late '90s. "The last time I actually drove a car myself was 1996 and I remember it very well and unfortunately so does the Secret Service which is why I haven't driven since then," she said at a conference in 2014. Clinton went on to say that losing access to this activity was one of the unsatisfactory adaptations that came with the political title: "I have to confess that one of the regrets I have about my public life is that I can't drive anymore."

They can't redecorate the entire White House

While first ladies are expected to decorate when they first move into the White House (via Marie Claire), there are still limits to where and what they can do. According to ABC News, first ladies can refurnish the areas they live in, typically the second and third floors of the White House. Additionally, certain historic areas are off limits without approval. These include the Lincoln Room and the Yellow Oval Room. Kate Andersen Brower, the author of "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies," states why certain places are difficult to modify. "Some parts are essentially historic rooms and belong to the American people, not to the families who live there,” she explained.

According to Slate, if first ladies or their families want to make any changes to any public areas, they need to request approval from the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. Still, even though there are limits to what a first lady can do in terms of decorating, they are nonetheless given a fair amount of liberty with the residential spaces, and the best part is that these alterations don't cost them a dime. Every four years, Congress provides funding to uphold or retouch appropriate rooms to the first family's liking. Additionally, the outlet added that George W. and Laura Bush were given $100,000 to cover decorating costs for the president's second term.

First ladies are not supposed to skip the White House Correspondents' Dinner

The White House's annual Correspondents' Dinner is considered a pretty big deal over in Washington. According to ABC News, the star-studded event is attended by both celebrities and journalists and traditionally involves a comedy routine headlined by a famous comedian who roasts the president. Additionally, the dinner honors journalists with well-earned scholarships and awards. According to the White House Correspondents' Association, both the president and the first lady are expected to attend the yearly White House Correspondents' Dinner.

Still, this rule isn't set in stone. The former first lady Melania Trump and her husband did not go to these dinners during Trump's presidency. As noted previously, the expectation that the two would attend was based on tradition, and unsurprisingly, there was public backlash about their empty seats. According to NBC News, the former president was the first POTUS to not attend the dinner in over 30 years. Of course, based on current events, it looks like the return of this special affair will have to wait even longer to see a president or first lady in attendance. According to Deadline, the last two Correspondents' dinners were canceled due to the pandemic, but the event is expected to return in 2022.

First ladies aren't allowed to open windows

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, First Lady Michelle Obama informed the host of a surprising rule that came with presidential living. "In the White House, you can't open a window," she stated. She then recalled a time when her daughter Sasha decided to crack a window for some fresh air. "It never opened again," she said. In a separate chat with Stephen Colbert on "The Late Show," Obama admitted, "One day as a treat, my lead agent let me have the windows open on the way to Camp David."

Similarly, French First Lady Brigitte Macron commented on the constraints of living in the White House after visiting with Melania Trump, The Guardian reported. Macron reportedly stated that the United States' first lady "cannot do anything," before going on to say, "She can't even open a window at the White House. She can't go outside. She's much more constrained than I am. I go out every day in Paris." 

Clearly, when it comes to security, the White House's Secret Service isn't taking any chances with the safety of the first lady or her family, and sometimes that means complying with some extreme measures.

They cannot ignore certain traditions

The White House takes its dinnerware very seriously when it comes to fancy china. Though the established practice might seem silly in modern times, it has continued from the 19th century to this day, proving to be an unwritten rule for the first lady. The practice first started back in 1861 with Mary Todd Lincoln. According to the website for President Lincoln's Cottage, Lincoln came from a well-to-do family that valued both "formal entertaining and social status." After she arrived at the White House, the first lady inspected the chinaware and found the limited inventory somewhat lacking. As such, one of her first roles was to update the dinnerware that would be used for important functions.

Lincoln's carefully designed china known as the Royal Purple set is considered quite chic and to this day is still greatly admired. Of course, since this former first lady started the tradition, there's been plenty of other stunning flatware chosen by her successors (via Architectural Digest). Some selected distinctive sets, like the one chosen by Lucy Hayes, who picked artsy china that featured 130 designs and came in "nontraditional shapes." Others like First Lady Caroline Harrison wanted to pay tribute to their home state. Her plate design featured a corn motif, which nicely represented her native Indiana. 

With plenty of stand-out pieces throughout the years, it's clear that the White House takes great pride in them. There's even a unique space known as the China Room, where visitors can view the collections for themselves.

Presidents' wives cannot accept gifts from foreign governments

Receiving gifts seems like a pretty straightforward process, but getting a present isn't quite so simple for first ladies. According to the Congressional Research Service, any items given to the president or the first lady are not theirs to keep if they come from a foreign government unless they receive consent from Congress. Gifts that receive congress' approval are typically considered "minimal value" or something that must be accepted if refusal causes "offense or embarrassment" or creates conflict between the United States and the foreign party. Still, anything costly is considered property of the United States and is handled by the National Archives and Records Administration.

On the other hand, if the gift comes from anywhere else, the first lady can do whatever she likes with the item after a rigorous screening process. Even so, the public is discouraged from sending anything considered perishable, any form of currency, and anything with substantial sentimental value. Still, further issues need to be considered regarding domestic gifts. Depending on the object's value (via the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum), the president and first lady might need to pay federal taxes on the present should they choose to keep it. Even more disheartening, due to the considerable quantity of gifts sent to them, there's a good chance neither the president nor first lady will ever even see the item.

First ladies cannot put personal expenses on the government's dime

The polished image of the first lady and the everyday items that come with it are expenses she has to pay for herself. According to The Guardian, Nancy Reagan was shocked by this practice. "Nobody had told us that the president and his wife are charged for every meal, as well as for such incidentals as dry cleaning, toothpaste and other toiletries," she said not long after moving into the White House. The overall cost of day-to-day necessities and fabulous clothes has taken a toll on some first ladies and their families. "I was amazed by the sheer number of designer clothes that I was expected to buy," said Laura Bush.

Some of the outstanding designer pieces seen on first ladies are donated; however, there's a catch. If either the president or the first lady receives designer clothing as a gift, they can only wear the piece once and then it must be donated or, presumably, paid for out of pocket. Notably, Reagan caused quite a stir after it was discovered that she received approximately $1 million worth of luxury clothing during her eight years as the first lady, on which she allegedly never paid taxes (via The Washington Post). She later denied any wrongdoing and stated her disbelief at the backlash in her book "My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan," questioning how she would have been perceived if she wore affordable clothing: "Instead of calling me extravagant, the press would have started referring to me as 'dowdy' and 'frumpy.'"

They're not allowed to use personal email addresses for government business

Even though a first lady isn't technically a government official, there are still certain rules she has to follow when it comes to doing business. While first ladies are allowed to have personal email accounts, they're not allowed to use them when sending government-related correspondence. This particular rule gained public attention back in 2020 when The Washington Post reported that Melania Trump was using a private Trump Organization email address for government business. According to Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, her former senior advisor and friend, this was a regular occurrence. "Melania and I both didn't use White House emails," she said to the news outlet.

The Post confirmed that messages with Melania Trump's private email and messaging accounts were used while she was the first lady. These emails were related to and discussed government hires, contracts, and itineraries for foreign business trips. According to a comment from former White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter regarding the first lady, "If she is doing United States government business, she should be using the White House email." After the article's publication, the former first lady's spokeswoman and chief of staff made a statement to the Post. "In consultation with White House ethics officials, from the beginning of the Administration, the First Lady and her staff have taken steps to meet the standard of the Presidential Records Act, relating to the preservation of records that adequately document official activities," she said.

First ladies cannot be grinches when it comes to holiday decorating

The holidays can be stressful for anyone, but for first ladies, there's a preset expectation to bring your A-game when it comes to decorating. According to the White House Historical Association, the Christmas tree theme tradition was first started by Jackie Kennedy in 1961. She chose a "Nutcracker Suite" concept and featured character ornaments inspired by ballet. The tree was displayed in the Blue Room. Later in 1990, First Lady Barbara Bush would resurrect this theme once more, decorating her tree with dancer figurines and ballet slippers.

Recent themes have included Michelle Obama's "Gift of the American Spirit" and Melania Trump's "The Spirit of America." The most recent contribution is First Lady Jill Biden's "Gifts from the Heart." According to CNN, the 2021 Christmas theme reflects on "things that unite and heal, and bring us together." 

It should also be noted that these decorations aren't your average holiday decor. The setup for Christmas 2021 alone required over 100 volunteers and used around "25 wreaths, 41 Christmas trees, 300 candles, 6,000 feet of ribbon, 10,000 ornaments and nearly 80,000-holiday lights," as noted by ABC News. In other words, there can't be any last-minute planning when it comes to first lady holiday decorating duty. According to Vogue, Biden was already prepping for the coming Christmas over the summer.

First ladies cannot continue to live at the White House if the president dies

Though it doesn't seem to be an official rule, it's not that surprising that first ladies and their families are expected to leave the premises in the event of the president's passing. Though there aren't any cases where the partner of a deceased president was kicked out of the White House, it would appear that first ladies are required to make new living arrangements within a reasonable amount of time. Notably, First Lady Jackie Kennedy left with her children two weeks after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, according to The White House Historical Association. After moving out, she only returned to the White House once to view a portrait of her husband.

In Kennedy's case, it was revealed that the widow sent President Lyndon Johnson a letter regarding her family's living situation after her husband's funeral. In the correspondence, the former first lady thanked him for his treatment of the situation and reassured the president that she and her children would be vacating soon. In her closing paragraph, she stated (via MPR News), "It mustn't be very much help to you your first day in office — to hear children on the lawn at recess. It is just one more example of your kindness that you let them stay — I promise — they will soon be gone."

They cannot avoid choosing a social cause

In addition to other expectations, first ladies are also expected to use their platform to promote a social cause. According to the National Women's History Museum, the tradition of choosing an issue to support is something that First Lady Dolley Madison started in the 1800s. She decided to sponsor housing for orphan girls. Since then, first ladies have chosen a variety of charities and causes to support. These include fighting for equality, as Eleanor Roosevelt did during and after her role as first lady, and Barbara Bush's literacy programs and projects to address homelessness and AIDS.

Recent first ladies like Michelle Obama promoted healthy eating and exercise by launching a program called Let's Move! in 2010. Her group stated that their goal was addressing and resolving childhood obesity. She also created Let Girls Learn, a program that focused on providing adequate education to young ladies worldwide. Next, Melania Trump started the Be Best project, which focused on children's issues, stating that its concentration would be "well-being, online safety, and opioid abuse." Currently, First Lady Jill Biden appears to be focusing on two causes: accessible education and breast cancer awareness, as stated in her interview with "Good Morning America." She declared, "I'm going to keep going," regarding the tuition-free community college proposal. She is also working to create easy access to mammograms for all women. "There's nothing more important than your health. Nothing," she expressed.

First ladies don't get paid for the work they do in the White House

With the amount of work that goes into being the first lady, it seems natural to assume that her contributions are rewarded with a generous paycheck. However, the reality is that being the first lady is a job with the salary equivalent of an unpaid internship. That's right — all the expectations and rules that come with the role are respected and followed without compensation. According to How Stuff Works, the first lady is meant to project the image of a likable, unbiased figure, and if she were to receive a salary, she would be viewed as a politician. "The White House depends so much on their unpaid and unofficial status," said author Lauren A. Wright.

Similarly, Money noted that the unpaid position, which has been unsalaried since its conception, does come with a certain amount of benefits. However, even with these accommodations, the job is still the equivalent of "wage inequality." As the outlet stated, questioning the first lady's lack of salary isn't a new concept. In a 1982 interview, Ronald Reagan remarked, "You know, with the first lady the government gets an employee free; they have her just about as busy as they have me."