By James Blackwell
It was during a speech in Berwyn, Pennsylvania on the 3rd November 2016 that Melania Trump first pledged to tackle cyber-bullying if her husband were to become president. ‘Technology has changed our universe. But like anything that is powerful, it can have a bad side’, Trump stated to the excited crowd, vowing to make the internet a safer place for children. Mentioning in the same speech, however, that she was a full-time mother to the Trumps’ youngest son, Barron, the early impression Melania Trump gave the world was that she wished to fulfil a more traditional role as First Lady and as a parent.
With this in mind, I ask, how will Melania Trump eradicate cyber-bullying if her primary focus is her marriage and role as a mother?
First off, let me be clear: this article is not an attack on the Trumps, or anything to do with Donald, really. It is simply looking at what we might expect from Melania during her term as FLOTUS, given her illustrious predecessors and what we have so far seen.
Looking at the broader history of the role, it has become almost a cliché for First Ladies of the United States to pick a single societal issue to address during their time in office. Not that this is a bad thing; even if the campaign were undertaken from a purely narcissistic point of view, it could still achieve a lot. After all, there are few better platforms to push an agenda from than being married to the most powerful man in the world. An obvious example is Michelle Obama, who amongst many other achievements, focused on childhood obesity in the States, launching the Let’s Move! and ChooseMyPlate campaigns. And although it is too soon to judge whether these initiatives will have any lasting benefit, the trend for what First ladies try and accomplish is clear. However, the role hasn’t always lent itself to providing opportunities for making change.
The first woman to be referred to as ‘First Lady’ while in office from 1857-1861 was Harriet Lane, niece of James Buchanan. Not a time of opportunity for women in America, or the wider world, and eight years before Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, Lane’s duties were to organise social events at the White House. To some extent, this responsibility still falls on the First Lady as Melania and her counterparts are supposed to organise the Easter Egg Roll, an annual event for thousands of children. Not much else notable is known about Lane; there is some evidence that she fought for the rights of some native Americans in Wisconsin, but there was no public campaign.
Since Lane, a carrousel of remarkable women have passed through 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with some taking a more public role than others. Grace Coolidge, wife of Calvin, tended to avoid politics, but this isn’t all too surprising as President Coolidge also seemed averse. However, as other First Ladies took a more active role, the position expanded significantly. Sarah Polk, for instance, worked as President’s secretary, though she didn’t get paid. First Ladies are well within their rights to earn their own money, and throughout the twentieth century a lot of them did. Bess Truman took a salary as a senate aid and Ladybird Johnson was the first to have her own chief of staff and press secretary. And of course, it is hard to touch on the subject of First Ladies without mentioning Eleanor Roosevelt.
Eleanor first became directly involved in politics when Franklin suffered a polio attack in 1921. When he ran for governor of New York in 1928 she campaigned and made a lot of speeches on his behalf. She was helped in obtaining a public presence by the fact that she was married to the longest serving president in the history of the country, but she certainly didn’t shy away from the public eye after Franklin’s death in 1945. Rather, a lot of her most notable achievements came after the event. This includes the small feats of helping to draft the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and serving as the first chair of the UN commission on the matter. She also wrote a newspaper column every Monday to Friday from 1936 to 1962 entitled ‘My Day’ which is acclaimed as offering a fascinating history on the period. She was a great advocate for women’s rights, civil rights and the rights of Second World War refugees. It is hard to overstate the accomplishments of Roosevelt and how enabling the position of the First Lady is for women to make extraordinary achievements.
Melania Trump’s bid to tackle cyber-bullying, therefore, couldn’t come from a better platform. We know, just from the comment section of YouTube alone, that cyber-bullying is a serious issue, and one which is very difficult to begin to address. It is entirely baffling how heinous some people are to each other behind the anonymity of a computer screen, but it affects most young people in one way or another. And Melania Trump is no stranger to this. After deciding not to move to Washington with her husband at the start of his Presidency, Melania was criticised in the mainstream media and also received abuse on Twitter, a common platform for cyber bullying. I’m not suggesting Melania reads every tweet sent to her, but she must have been aware of them. Additionally, she will want to protect her youngest son, an innocent bystander in the spotlight of the Trump regime, from such abuse.
Melania is Slovenian born and has been a permanent resident in the US since 2001 where she originally worked as a model. In Trump’s election campaign she played a small part, unlike his more outspoken daughter Ivanka, and now, given that she is the First Lady of the United States, she is in the news remarkably little. In fact, the most memorable headlines Melania as First Lady has made was when she unusually delayed moving into the White House with her son Barron, and again when she defended Donald’s Twitter attack on talk show host Mika Brzezinski, for which she drew criticism for the obvious parallels with her own cyber bullying initiative. Her otherwise silence and shyness from the public eye suggest Melania wishes to fulfil a more old-fashioned role as wife while her husband is president.
Consequently, how much time will Melania devote to her cyber-bullying initiative? There is no doubt that the resources will be there for her, as well as a host of people able to advise, but cyber bullying is an extremely difficult issue to tackle; it is widespread, affecting many people, and the internet is incomprehensibly vast. In addition, the public often opposes censorship of information and monitoring of the web. Choosing to engage with a huge issue is by no means a bad thing, but Melania certainly has her work cut out.
No matter what is going on in the White House, previous First Ladies have proven that they are capable of great things of which Pat Nixon and Ladybird Johnson, First Ladies during the Vietnam war, are testament. By announcing her campaign last November Melania was doing all the right things, but the lack of activity since then is a concern. It isn’t at all clear whether she is planning constitutional action, changes to the curriculum or any other course. The optimist in me says that she is a mother who has a clear vested interest in decreasing cyber bullying. But the cynic in me says her speech last November was a publicity stunt pulled before an election without much consideration for what she was signing up for.
Only the next four years will tell.
Melania Profile: https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/first-lady-melania-trump
Harriet Lane: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Harriet-Lane
Eleanor Roosevelt: https://www.thoughtco.com/eleanor-roosevelt-1779802