Iceland’s first lady, Eliza Reid, has a pet peeve.
It’s when her husband, the president of Iceland, is invited to a function, and when — though she is not listed on the invitation by name — she is simply expected to show up.
“I almost refer to it … as the stifling of my identity by a thousand paper cuts,” she said in an interview with The World.
Reid has been outspoken about what she characterizes as the outdated expectations and assumptions that come with the role of the first lady. That includes the “strange adjustment" of “getting used to the fact that you are known primarily as someone else’s spouse, instead of yourself," she said.
In October, she even wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, entitled: “I’m a First Lady, and It’s An Incredibly Weird Job.”
Even calling it a job might be misleading, Reid said.
“I wasn’t elected to a position, and I don’t have a salary or a staff or anything. But there’s also certain expectations: that I accompany my husband on certain trips, or greet foreign dignitaries, and things like that."
“I wasn’t elected to a position, and I don’t have a salary or a staff or anything. But there’s also certain expectations: that I accompany my husband on certain trips, or greet foreign dignitaries, and things like that,” she said.
Reid isn’t the first or only first lady to raise flags about the constraints and challenges of the position. In 2016, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, wife of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, found herself in the center of public controversy after admitting she struggled to balance her family life and public duties.
“I have three children at home and a husband who is prime minister. I need help,” she told the French-language newspaper La Soleil. “I need a team to help me serve people.”
Gregoire-Trudeau’s admission was mocked by many and inspired a satirical Twitter campaign under the hashtag #PrayForSophie. But her comments highlighted the unpaid labor asked of political spouses, who are expected to spearhead initiatives (like first lady Michelle Obama’s "Let’s Move" public health campaign), plan events, manage a staff, appear at official state functions and be on call to advise their spouses 24 hours a day — without pay.
That disparity inspired Money magazine to work with compensation experts on putting a ballpark salary figure on the role of US first lady. Drawing on salary information from jobs with overlapping duties — including government affairs executive, public relations professional, and licensed professional counselor — they came up with estimates of $173,500 to $287,000. (The president of the United States, in comparison, draws a salary of $400,000 per year.)
Considering the fact that the vast majority of "first spouses" are women, it’s even possible to read these figures as a dramatic example of the gender pay gap — and of the undervaluing of female labor more generally. In the US, white women earned 77% percent of white men’s median annual earnings in 2017, while black women earned 60.8%, and Hispanic women just 53%, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
So what to do? In 2016, POLITICO writer Jack Shaffer proposed one controversial solution to this issue: doing away with the position of first lady altogether.
“By giving [the first lady] a federal budget and nonstop press coverage, we endorse a pernicious kind of neo-nepotism that says, pay special attention to the person not because she’s earned it or is inherently worthy of our notice but because of who she’s related to by marriage."
“By giving [the first lady] a federal budget and nonstop press coverage, we endorse a pernicious kind of neo-nepotism that says, pay special attention to the person not because she’s earned it or is inherently worthy of our notice but because of who she’s related to by marriage,” Shaffer wrote.
But it’s hard to see the public’s fascination with the first ladies subside any time soon.
Instead, Reid believes spouses thrust into those positions should have more agency to do as much — or as little — with the role as they want.
“The choice to use the platform should be up to him or her,” Reid said.
And if that’s not an option, she says, the first lady — or first man — should be compensated in a manner appropriate to the work they do.
“If there’s going to be some sort of defined position that someone has to do, people have to look at that in terms of elections and salaries and that other sort of thing."
“If there’s going to be some sort of defined position that someone has to do, people have to look at that in terms of elections and salaries and that other sort of thing,” Reid said.
Reid acknowledges and is grateful for the power and influence that comes with her position. She’s used her platform to advocate for gender equality, literacy campaigns, and immigrant rights and multiculturalism in Iceland.
But she also says the perks of her role shouldn’t stop her from speaking out about the oddities of it.
“I appreciate that I’m in an incredibly privileged position … and I enjoy it very much, so I don’t want to give the impression that I’m complaining,” she said.
“But I feel that it’s very important to come forward and show that women, especially, they’re not accessories to their spouses,” Reid said.