Jaclyn Friedman at the American Prospect has written an excellent piece on the expansion of the role of first ladies and would-be first ladies in campaigns. Friedman argues that the image that campaigns cultivate of the ever-supportive wife who has no existence outside of her family-life hurts basically everyone but the candidates themselves. It hurts women by being an obvious setback for feminism. It hurts voters, because it creates a distraction from the relevant policy issues. And, as Friedman astutely observes, it creates a paradigm for presidential campaigns that excludes female candidates, as well as anyone who doesn't conform to the heterosexual ideal that's implicit in both the Romney and Obama family tableaus. It's hard enough to imagine a first gentleman, much less an unmarried, childless, or even a queer candidate.
All very good points, but I still think there's something valuable in the first-lady contest. As Friedman notes, the sizing up of presidential candidates' wives is a national referendum in the ongoing culture war to define American womanhood. While that creates serious problems for feminists, it's also an opportunity, because it gives us so much information. The spectacle of the battle of the first ladies gives us a chance to gauge how Americans actually feel about the idea of womanhood, and what ideals they find attractive and which ones they're leaving behind. If we want to change how Americans view women, we need to know where they're at right now, and the fact that cookie-baking still matters to a lot of people is information we should have.