When reports circulated this week that Ivanka Trump would have her own office in her father’s White House—in the space normally reserved for the first lady, no less—it felt like just the next step in her political ascendancy. A spokeswoman denied it, saying that no decisions have been made about Ivanka’s formal role. But wherever she sits, it’s clear that Donald Trump’s older daughter will be a powerful presence in the White House. As a splashy report in the New York Times asked recently, “Will Ivanka Trump Be the Most Powerful First Daughter in History?”
One of Ivanka’s most notable qualities is her willingness to follow her father wherever he goes. She joined the family real estate business in her early 20s, and sat by his side in the “boardroom” on The Apprentice. When he waded into politics, she didn’t blink an eye. The 35-year-old businesswoman turned her convention introduction into a speech on child-care policy, and she has been cited as a potential advisor on this, climate change, and other issues. She has sat in on post-election meetings with foreign leaders and job interviewees, to the horror of the diplomatic establishment. She and her husband are said to be house-hunting in Washington. With the actual first lady having declared her intent to stay in New York until summer at the earliest, it looks like the first daughter will be the de facto substitute.
Like so many other aspects of the looming Trump presidency, this feels like an historically unprecedented and telling scenario. Ivanka’s proto-first-ladydom seems particular to a man whose actual wife, Melania, has seemed ill at ease with and unprepared for the speeches, policy hobbyhorses, and general diplomatic responsibilities of the modern role. And by adopting his daughter as a professional consort, Trump, who has shown a knack for ushering out his wives in favor of younger models, has in a weird way now done it again.
In this one dimension, however, Trump is actually harking back to a long tradition. Many first daughters and daughters-in-law have in fact served as formal hostesses, advisors, and confidantes in the White House. According to the National First Ladies’ Library, a project that produced a series of articles on “other women” of the White House a few years ago, about two dozen women relatives other than wives have served as first lady in some capacity. Eliza Monroe Hay served as unofficial spokeswoman for her father, James Monroe, for example. Angelica Van Buren lived at the White House and received guests on behalf of her widower father-in-law, Martin. The daughters of Benjamin Harrison and Woodrow Wilson assumed the role when their mothers died in the White House. The term “first lady” itself was popularized during the presidency of James Buchanan, a lifelong bachelor—if you know what I mean—who enlisted his niece to handle the duties of first lady.
In some cases, a first daughter assumed at least part of the first lady role even though the president was married. When vice president John Tyler was hastily called to duty after William Henry Harrison died in office, he asked his daughter-in-law, Priscilla Tyler, to serve as hostess and escort at formal events. Tyler’s wife, Letitia, had suffered a stroke several years earlier, and was mostly confined to her room. Priscilla, by contrast, was an extroverted former stage actress who took to the new role naturally. She became the first woman to formally accompany the president on an official trip within the United States, escorting her father-on-law at banquets and parades from Boston to Baltimore. When she resigned her role so her husband could take a job in Philadelphia, Tyler asked one of his daughters to take her place.
The closest parallel to the relationship between Donald and Ivanka Trump may be the one between Thomas Jefferson and his oldest daughter, Martha Randolph. Jefferson was a widower when he moved into the White House, and his daughter, Martha Randolph lived with him intermittently and became a close advisor. When the press printed rumors about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, Randolph softened his image by quickly appearing by his side in Washington and accompanying him to church – much as Ivanka’s presence helped deflect criticism of her father for bragging on tape about sexually assaulting other women.
It remains to be seen how Ivanka will wield whatever formal or informal power she is granted as bizarro first lady. Still, what we know is that the expectations of her will be far more complex than those of Martha Randolph. It has been more than 100 years since a president entered the White House without a wife willing or able to perform the traditional public role of first lady, and the role has changed drastically since then. Though first ladies still serve as hosts and escorts at formal events, it’s now customary for them to dabble in policy, and Ivanka’s inclusion in meetings with foreign and business leaders certainly suggest that her father is seeing her as a member of his team.
But Ivanka would be wise to remember that wading into deeper political waters is still a risky move for a first lady, whether she’s a daughter or spouse. Back in the 1990s, one ambitious presidential wife attempted to take on the thornier issue of health care reform. Just look where that got her.