Plagiarism versus Sexism: Melania Trump's Speech at the RNC
Plagiarism is wrong.
As someone who taught college English for several years, I am acutely aware of the causes, effects, and ethical implications of plagiarism. Stealing someone else’s words and passing them off as your own is dishonest and rude and, quite frankly, insulting to your audience. After giving a recent speech that bore striking similarities to a speech made by Michelle Obama, Melania Trump is being accused of plagiarism. Which, as we just covered, is wrong.
You know what else is wrong? Judging Melania Trump’s appearance, clothing and hairstyle choices, and demeanor in general, to be relevant regarding her husband’s ability to run a country. Even judging Melania Trump’s accomplishments or lack thereof is wrong in this context–no one is considering hiring Melania. We, the American people, are considering hiring her husband for President (much to my horror). Melania is not relevant to this conversation.
So, in fact, expecting Melania Trump to give a speech at all is wrong.
“But she might be the first lady!” You might protest, quite reasonably. “Shouldn’t we think about how she would represent our country to the world?”
The role of the first lady is antiquated and sexist. Did someone consider your spouse’s* demeanor in hiring you? Probably not. Nor should they! Your spouse’s demeanor is not relevant to how well you can perform your job. As grownups and professionals in 2016, we are expected to be able to compartmentalize our personal lives for the duration of our work day. I expect any professional who is capable of running a country to consult cabinet members and constituents, regardless of the presence of a significant other. I don’t need my doctor’s husband to be able to perform medical operations. I don’t need the bus driver’s wife to be an expert at maneuvering large vehicles. And I don’t need my prospective President’s husband or wife to be a gifted orator.
“But how can you say that as a rebbetzin? Does this mean you don’t like being a rebbetzin?”
Aha! Here is where things get interesting.
As many people who know me can attest, I actually love being a rebbetzin. I find the role fascinating and complex. I think the existence of such a role in Jewish life has the potential to be simultaneously anachronistic and avant-garde; it connects to both the shtetl and to modern discussions on work/life balance. When a congregation has faith in the wisdom of a rebbetzin, it means that congregation views the rabbi as a whole person rather than just a fancy thing on the bimah. It means the congregation expects the rabbi to go home at night and have interesting conversations around the dinner table. It means the congregation values love, and humanity, and the beautiful messiness of human relationships. It means the congregation hallows the home.
With all of these wonderful implications comes an increased pressure on the family of the rabbi, one that not every rebbetzin welcomes and enjoys. The rabbi’s family is expected to be well behaved by the standards of the shul. The rabbi’s family is expected to be knowledgable and friendly, always ready to talk to people in the congregation, always appropriately dressed. The rabbi’s home life becomes a sort of proxy for all of our desires for the right way for a family to live; the rabbi is a teacher but also a parent figure. It’s complicated, and it’s hard sometimes.
However, it makes sense. A clergy person is in the business of loving. A clergy person cares for people’s souls, for their spiritual well being–so of course the congregants will care back! The congregation cares for their rabbis and rabbis’ families in ways that are beautiful and fascinating and deep.
It does not make sense for us to care about the love of our politicians’ lives in the same way. Politicians are not in the business of loving. They are in the business of legislating and maintaining peace and order in a society.
I do not need to put bizarre pressure on Melania Trump to be a good speaker. For that matter, I don’t need to put pressure on Michelle Obama either (though her aptitude at first-ladying has clearly been amazing). A spouse of a politician should be like the spouse of other professions; he or she should be left alone during the hiring process. There are many other reasons to dislike Donald Trump; Melania should not be one of them.
*If you have a spouse. Which presumes you believe in marriage and certain tenants of that institution. There are many, many layers to how problematic the expected “first lady” role is.