Americans Rethink Role of First Ladies

More than two thirds say it is OK for a first lady to have a job outside the White House.

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First lady Michelle Obama arrives at the ceremonial swearing-in of President Barack Obama at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th presidential inauguration.

Americans now expect the first lady to be more than just a helpmate to her husband, indicating that attitudes are changing about the role of the president's spouse, according to a new poll for C-SPAN.

Sixty-five percent of voters say it's acceptable for a first lady to have an outside job while her husband is president, with 69 percent of women and 59 percent of men holding this view. But only 40 percent say a first lady should receive a government salary, with virtually no gender gap on this question, according to the poll, timed to coincide with Presidents' Day and a C-SPAN series on first ladies that began this week.

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The findings represent a departure from the conventional wisdom among political strategists on what Americans want and don't want from a first lady. The traditional view is that a first lady should be first and foremost a helpmate to her husband. It has also been thought that Americans don't want a first lady to be a policy advocate, except on safe and noncontroversial issues such as support for literacy.

But the poll found that Americans are split on whether a first lady should advocate for major political and policy issues. Fifty-three percent say yes and 47 percent say no. There also is a serious gender gap on this question, with 60 percent of women saying yes to advocacy by first ladies and 56 percent of men saying no.

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Forty percent say their opinion of a first lady has only a minor impact on their opinion of her husband; 23 percent say it has a major impact, and 36 percent say it has no impact.

The poll was conducted for C-SPAN by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates.

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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.