Earlier this week, President Bill Clinton took the podium at the Democratic National Convention. It wasn’t the time slot to which he was accustomed—he wasn’t the headliner of the four-day event. This time, that role would be occupied by his wife, and he was a mere character witness testifying to the warm personal side of Hillary, a satellite bringing us in closer orbit with the woman who at times has felt too cold and distant.
In the middle of it, he pledged his support for his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for president of the United States of America. It was a dramatic moment, and not just because it was the first time a woman—a wife, working mother, and grandmother at that—has secured the nomination of a major U.S. political party.
It was also a chance to hear a man wholeheartedly supporting his wife’s career goal of becoming arguably the most powerful woman on the planet. “F or this time, Hillary is uniquely qualified to seize the opportunities and reduce the risks we face,” Bill Clinton said. “And she is still the best darn change-maker I have ever known….That’s why you should elect her.”
Another powerful man concurred. “ I can say with confidence there has never been a man or a woman — not me, not Bill, nobody — more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America,” President Obama declared. “I hope you don’t mind, Bill, but I was just telling the truth, man.”
On the global stage, a woman leader is nothing new; the first modern female president, Argentina’s Isabel Martínez de Perón, was elected in Argentina in 1974. In this country, though, a woman in the top job has been a tough sell, not least of all because it puts a man in the position of helpmeet traditionally occupied by the First Lady.
Each time the camera turned to catch Bill Clinton clapping and beaming with pride for his wife, the girl with big glasses in his Yale Law classroom, young boys saw the former leader of the nation audition for a supporting role in a world where, in Michelle Obama’s words, “ all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”
Bill has asserted if he becomes “BROTUS,” he doesn’t intend to give up advancing the platforms and programs he has worked on since his own presidency. And while many first ladies have hewed to the traditional role of national hostess and homemaker, a number of others—his own wife, Michelle Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt, just to name a few—have set the precedent for the working White House spouse.
So in the event that Bill Clinton gets to make a little history of his own—”I want to break a ceiling. I am tired of the stranglehold that women have had on the job of presidential spouse,” he said on the campaign trail earlier this year—we offer this look at how first mates who’ve come before have handled the role.