The Surprising Rules That First Ladies Have To Follow

There’s a lot more to being the first lady than just standing next to the president at White House functions. These women have important roles, and as such, they also have some rules to live by. Everything from how they decorate the White House to the gifts they receive must follow specific guidelines. Some rules are actually quite liberating, like the ability to hold an outside job or opt not to live in the White House. Read on for the surprising rules the first ladies follow.

They Aren’t Allowed To Drive

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in a Car
George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images
George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

It may come as a surprise to find out that first ladies aren’t allowed to drive themselves. The Secret Service ensures that the first family is chauffered around as a security measure.

Their drivers are professionals who know how to keep them safe or quickly get them out of dangerous situations. Being in the back seat allows them to be hidden behind tinted windows. Plus, they can duck down if there a threat appeared.

They Can’t Open The Windows In The White House

Lady Bird poses in front of a White House window.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The White House has an astounding 132 rooms, so it follows that there are also a ton of windows. While many of us would love to open them up and get in all that fresh air, it’s forbidden to do this in the White House.

The windows are bulletproof, so opening them would compromise the first family’s safety. In an interview with Oprah, Michelle Obama said that her daughter Sasha once accidentally opened a window. Right away everyone was rushing to close it, so that mistake didn’t happen again.

They Don’t Get Paid

White House Hosts Celebration Of Country Music
Matthew Cavanaugh-Pool/Getty Images
Matthew Cavanaugh-Pool/Getty Images

Considering that first ladies do everything from event planning to implementing programs, it may be surprising to hear that they don’t get paid. While it may seem unfair at first, there’s actually a reason for their lack of compensation.

Princeton lecturer Lauren A. Wright explains that first ladies have a certain appeal that is in part due to the fact they aren’t lumped together with politicians. If they were paid, that might be a different story.

They Don’t Have To Be The President’s Wife

Harriet Lane (1830-1903), 19th century (1908).
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Since the first lady is almost always the president’s wife, it may seem like that’s a rule, but there actually is no such law. Presidents who are not married can still win office, in which case they select a female they’re close with to fulfill first lady duties.

This was the case in 1857 when James Buchanan became the 15th United States President. He remained unmarried his entire life, and chose his niece, Harriet Lane, to serve as first lady.

They Give A Tour To The Incoming First Lady

First Lady Laura Bush takes Michelle Obama for a private tour.
Charles Ommanney/Getty Images
Charles Ommanney/Getty Images

When a new president is elected, it is customary for the former First Lady to give the incoming one a tour of the White House. The tradition can be extremely tense, especially when there’s a political or generational divide.

Such was reportedly the case when Jackie Kennedy took office from Mamie Eisenhower. The young first lady had just had a c-section and the tour reportedly only lasted ten minutes. The first ladies are generally cordial to each other, though.

They Can Still Have Jobs While In The White House

Eleanor Roosevelt writing.
Getty Images
Getty Images

Considering that the first lady doesn’t get paid for her role, it seems only fair that they’re allowed to hold outside jobs during their husband’s term. This may seem like a modern decision, but it’s actually been the law for some time.

Bess Truman, Sarah Polk, and Eleanor Roosevelt all had jobs while living in the White House. First Lady Jill Biden is a community college professor and has opted to stay with her job while her husband is in office.

They Don’t Have To Live In The White House

first-lady-rules-7
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

While many of the first ladies have lived at the White House, it isn’t a rule that they must do so. Being that the first lady doesn’t have to be the President’s wife, or even in his family, it makes sense that she has autonomy over her living situation.

Melania Trump was one presidential wife who didn’t move into the White House right away. She and first son Barron remained in New York so that he could finish the school year there.

They’re Allowed To Turn Down Secret Service Protection

Jacqueline Kennedy With Daughter Caroline
Getty Images
Getty Images

The first family gets heavy protection from the Secret Service, especially while they occupy the White House. According to Federal law, the president is not allowed to turn down his protection, because it helps ensure he can uphold his duties.

The first lady, on the other hand, is allowed to decline Secret Service protection if she chooses to. First children are also capable of doing so, but only after they become legal adults.

They Have To Donate Gifted Designer Outfits

US President Barack Obama and First Lady
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Since first ladies appear at some of the most significant events in the country, it only makes sense that designers are eager to dress them. Sometimes they will even gift them an ensemble, which is allowed.

At the same time, there’s a caveat to the gift. The first lady must donate the gifted item after she’s worn it once. It’s a way to mitigate her perks and ensure that she pays for her designer clothes like the rest of the public would have to.

She Is The Assumed Hostess Of State Dinners

President Trump Welcomes Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison To The Washington On State Visit
Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

State dinners are a huge deal because they include a visiting head of government or reigning monarch. The dinner symbolizes goodwill between the global powers, and the hostess is typically the first lady.

She makes the decisions pertaining to the party, including seating arrangements, decorations, and entertainment. The foreign head of state is the guest of honor, so it’s the first lady’s job to make them feel as welcome as possible on behalf of the entire country.

They Select White House China Patterns

Mamie Eisenhower with Fine China in White House
Getty Images
Getty Images

Fine china may seem like a tired tradition, but in the White House it’s a way to represent each first lady. The ritual dates all the way back to the 1800s, with Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd.

The first lady picks out the china pattern they want for the dishes used during their husband’s presidential term. Once a new president enters office, a few pieces from the former china collection are put on display and the incoming first lady picks her own pattern.

They Can Only Decorate Certain Rooms

Portrait Of First Lady Nancy Reagan
Horst P. Horst/Conde Nast via Getty Images
Horst P. Horst/Conde Nast via Getty Images

While homeowners associations often have decorating rules applying to spaces outside the home, the White House has such rules inside the building, too. The first lady can’t just transform the rooms to make them look however she would like.

Since the White House is a historic property, the first lady can only alter certain things. They mainly are allowed to personalize family areas that are used as living spaces. These rooms are on the second and third floors, and the rest of the White House must remain as is.

They Are Responsible For Choosing A Christmas Tree Theme

Jacqueline and John Fitzgerald Kennedy Posing with Their Christmas Tree
Getty Images
Getty Images

In 1961, Jackie Kennedy started the now decades-long tradition of having the first lady choose a Christmas Tree theme. She went with “Nutcracker Suite” that year, decorating the tree with ornamental toys inspired by the ballet.

Patricia Nixon later did the theme “American Flower Tree” by decorating with ornaments that represented all of the states’ official flowers. Other themes have included Nancy Reagan’s “Mother Goose” tree, Barbara Bush’s “Children’s Literacy” tree, and Melania Trump’s “America the Beautiful” tree.

They Are Expected To Host The Easter Egg Roll

US First Lady Hillary Clinton listens to the Easter Bunny whispering in her ear.
RICHARD ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images
RICHARD ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

As we’ve seen, when it comes to holidays and parties, the first lady is typically the go-to in terms of running the show. The same is true for the annual Easter Egg Roll, the origins of which go all the way back to President Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

The first lady will often plan the event and can put their own spin on it by incorporating whatever activities they see fit, such as book readings and decorating eggs.

The First Lady Also Hosts Hanukkah Events

President Obama Speaks At Hanukkah Reception
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

In 2001, First Lady Laura Bush made history by hosting the first official White House Hanukkah party. The Bushes invited staff and their families to participate in a menorah lighting.

The event symbolized the White House belonging to US citizens of all faiths, and the tradition has been in place ever since. Jewish a cappella groups are often invited to sing and the kitchen prepares a kosher meal for attendees. They even place a 30-foot National Menorah in front of the White House during the event.

They Have To Ask Permission To Change Certain Rooms

Bush Welcomes President-Elect Obama To White House
Joyce N. Boghosia/The White House via Getty Images
Getty Images

As we mentioned, the first lady can change personal spaces to a certain degree. This might include altering the bedding, getting new furniture, or repainting the walls. The first family even gets a budget from Congress to do so.

When it comes to historic guest suites or state rooms, though, the First Lady has to get permission from the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. The White House Historical Association typically funds state room refurbishings every decade.

They Can Work With An Interior Designer

First Lady Betty Ford takes a phone call in the second floor Queen's bedroom.
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Whatever rooms the first lady decides to alter, she may consult with an interior designer. Since the White House is a representation of the country, there is a lot of pressure to make it personalized while still upholding the home’s integrity.

That’s why many have turned to the help of professionals, like Nancy Reagan, who collaborated with designer Ted Graber. The Obamas turned to Michael S. Smith for designing expertise, and the Trumps worked with Tham Kannalikham.

They Can’t Accept Gifts From Other Governments

President Barack Obama Arrives In India
Solaris Images/Getty Images
Solaris Images/Getty Images

Due to the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, the first lady cannot accept gifts from foreign governments. The reasoning behind this rule is that such items could be bribes and influence the president’s decision-making.

Gifts that are given to the first family but are meant for the people of the United States are handled by the National Archives and Records Administration. In the past, gifts sent to the White House from other countries were approved by Congress.

They Can Accept Certain Domestic Gifts

Melania Trump Visits Children's National Medical Center
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

While first ladies cannot accept gifts from foreign officials, they can accept those from anyone else. These may include personal gifts from family and friends, or domestic gifts from fans and fellow American officials.

At the same time, there are rules put into place to keep the family protected. Anything consumable, combustible, or applied topically must be destroyed for the sake of safety. It’s similar to the rules at the airport and has to do with preventing potential attacks.

They Have To Pay For Things Out Of Pocket

President and Mrs. Clinton Attend New York State Fair
Dirck Halstead/Liaison/Getty Images
Dirck Halstead/Liaison/Getty Images

The president may get free rent and an impressive salary, but they don’t get all of their expenses covered. The first lady and her husband are still responsible for paying for their own needs.

This includes things like food, outfits, and toiletries. One perk they get is not having to worry about making the payments themselves. The White House usher’s office prepares a bill that has all of their owed money listed.

They Only Have 12 Hours To Move In

First Lady Melania Trump walks through the White House.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Decoration changes like repainting and recarpeting happen rapidly on move-in day because they only have 12 hours to get everything in place. The transition starts at noon and must be complete by midnight.

While the first family is responsible for getting all of their items to the White House, the General Services Administration takes over from there. The first family isn’t even around for much of the move since they spend most of the day at their inauguration.

They Can Work With Personal Stylists

Jacqueline Kennedy
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Since the first lady’s attire is under major scrutiny, it would make sense that she might want a personal stylist to help out. Just as she’s allowed to hire an interior designer, the first lady can also work with a personal stylist.

For example, Laura Bush worked with Michael Faircloth, and Michelle Obama used stylist Meredith Koop. Jackie Kennedy was especially famous for her wardrobe, and she worked with fashion designer Oleg Cassini.

The Secret Service Protects Them For Life

Hillary Clinton is guarded by U.S. Secret Service as she enters her Chevy Suburban.
Rick Friedman/rickfriedman.com/Corbis via Getty Images
Rick Friedman/rickfriedman.com/Corbis via Getty Images

The president and first lady both receive Secret Service protection for the rest of their lives. Congress removed this rule in 1994 for cost reasons, shortening the protection length to just ten years after they leave office. After that, they would have to pay for it themselves.

In 2013, President Obama restored the rule so that all former presidents and first ladies get Secret Service protection for their remaining lives. First children also get security teams, but only until they are 16 years old.

Their Protection Ends If They Remarry

Jackie Onassis Sighting - September 10, 1970
Tom Wargacki/WireImage/Getty Images
Tom Wargacki/WireImage/Getty Images

Secret Service protection for both the president and the first lady generally lasts for their entire lives, but there is a caveat. If the president passes, his widow would still get protection up to the point she remarries.

Since federal law states that only remarriage constitutes Secret Service protection being terminated, it’s possible that a divorced first lady would still be covered. One individual who this rule would have applied to is Jackie Kennedy, who married Aristotle Onassis in 1968.

They Can Have A Say In The White House Staff

Ronald And Nancy Reagan Stand On White House Balcony
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

First ladies often end up with higher approval ratings than their husbands since they are seen as apolitical. In reality, they have some say in the White House decisions, such as staffing.

Melania Trump publically called for Mira Ricardel, a national security advisor, to be dismissed in 2018. Decades prior, Nancy Reagan had similarly wanted her husband to dismiss Donald Regan, who was the chief of staff. Ultimately, Regan resigned.

They Have To Think Carefully About What They Wear

First Lady Michelle Obama and daughter Malia step off Air Force One August 16, 2009 upon arrival at Grand Canyon National Park Airport.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Part of being the first lady means dressing to impress all of the time, even when the moment calls for a casual look. Michelle Obama learned this lesson the hard way when the first family took a trip to the Grand Canyon.

They flew on Air Force One, which involves a photo op upon exiting the aircraft. Mrs. Obama dressed prepared for hiking, and there was a huge reaction to her wearing shorts. Some deemed the outfit too casual for stepping off the prestigious plane.

They Can Work In Politics

Hillary Clinton In Kazakhstan
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Even though first ladies often gain popularity by staying out of politics, there’s no law stating that they must do so. They can pursue a career in politics after their husband’s term, or even during!

Hillary Clinton is an excellent example of this because she not only went on to run for president, but she also worked on her husband’s staff while he was in office! She was the chair of the President’s Task Force on National Health Care Reform.

They Typically Choose A Charitable Cause

Lady Bird Johnson Posing For A Photo
Santi Visalli/Getty Images
Santi Visalli/Getty Images

While first ladies have generally always participated in charitable work, it wasn’t until Lady Bird Johnson stepped into the White House that it officially became a tradition. Her work in environmental protection sparked a ritual of every first lady having a social cause.

It has since become customary for the first lady to have some sort of platform that she promotes while her husband is in office. The campaigns have included equal rights, healthcare, anti-bullying, children’s literacy, and more.

They Typically Attend The White House Correspondents’ Dinner

White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) Dinner Events
Pete Marovich-Pool/Getty Images
Pete Marovich-Pool/Getty Images

Though it isn’t a hard rule, the president and the first lady generally attend the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The banquet is to celebrate those who cover the events at the White House on behalf of the public. It includes comedians who poke fun at the attendees.

President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump did not attend the event. Their absence marked the first time in 30 years that the president and first lady did not go.

There Are Rules About Email And Social Media Usage

First Lady Melania Trump Visits Immigrant Detention Center On U.S. Border
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

While first ladies can have a personal email for things unrelated to the government, they can’t use that email for White House-related business. Anything like that must be discussed using their official White House email.

They are also allowed to have social media accounts. After all, social media is a great way to communicate with the public. As a precaution, some platforms have enacted stricter security measures for high-profile individuals such as the first lady.