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If becoming the first lady of the United States was played like a game of Simon Says (with one high-heeled winner left standing at the end) it would go something like this: Simon says get your hair done to perfection and don a form-fitting, classy suit. Simon says smile and look natural at all times. Simon says stand on a platform next to your husband until your feet are bathed in pain. Simon says now get on a plane without your husband and speak to crowds of thousands, praising your husband and charming your audiences with such style that you will be affectionately dubbed "the closer" (Michelle Obama).

Simon says demurely stick your neck out and contradict another first lady aspirant ("I don't know about you ... I am very proud of my country." Cindy McCain slagging Michelle Obama).

Simon says have a killer résumé (master's degree this, $300,000 job that) but be prepared to toss away your professional accomplishments in order to be the perfect White House hostess while taking up worthy causes that will change the world.

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In other words, Simon says, be a paragon of perfection, smart as a whip and a dazzling projection of your husband's image (but don't outshine him).

If you can do all that, you can achieve one of the most anachronistic and yet perversely powerful positions for women in the United States.

First lady. What a concept. No other country in the world sets such store by it. While Carla Bruni, the glamorous new wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy set Britain ablaze last week with her Jackie Kennedy-cloned outfits and her "kittenish"behaviour, it remains to be seen whether she is accorded in her own country anywhere near the respect the role and title gets in the United States.

Once, first lady just meant being the "hostess" of the White House. But then Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abe and a real pistol, apparently preferred "Mrs. President" and deeply grieved not only her assassinated husband but the loss of a job that enthralled her ("and now I must step down from the pedestal").

The job has since expanded to be of such national importance that The New Yorker magazine recently published a nine-page profile of Harvard-educated lawyer Michelle Obama. World leaders and Nobel Prize-winning scientists don't get this coverage.

In Canada, we just don't go there. Maclean's magazine tried, mischievously anointing Laureen Harper (also a pistol) the first lady of Canada, but we balked. We know she rides a motorcycle, looks like a ton of fun, is devoted to her children and adores cats, but she has so far failed to humanize her husband (now that would take a village).

And Janine Krieber - the vivacious professor wife of Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion? Most Canadians don't even know her name.

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Then there's the redoubtable Olivia Chow, wife of NDP Leader Jack Layton, and member of parliament herself with the rare political talent of always being likeable as she sticks the shiv in.

But none of these women have anywhere near the power or cachet of even the first lady wannabes, let alone the women who actually got the job. Our Canadian political spouses have their own lives because hey, it's 2008 and wives don't usually travel with their husbands waving like automatons as they board aircrafts.

In contrast, the American first lady model is at once high-profile and enormously strictured.

The recent release of Hillary Clinton's schedules as first lady - all 11,000-plus pages worth - demonstrates that on the surface, even as ambitious a woman as Senator Clinton got firmly relegated to a role.

In fact, according to the British newspaper the Telegraph, her Belfast 1998 schedule records that she and Cherie Blair, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair's wife (and also a lawyer) were scheduled on one stop to "proceed to the children's play area, where children are creating playground models." So much for bringing peace to Ireland - or even being asked to try.

Eleanor Roosevelt, much admired, smart and influential in many social causes, is the only first lady to have made The Atlantic magazine's list of 100 most influential figures in American history. She is responsible for one of the most famous self-affirming quotations of all time: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent," which suggests that in her case they must have tried.

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The role of first lady obviously confers far more actual power - and however controversial the notion, political "experience" - on these women than they would have had if they weren't married to a president. But it's what they do with the power that matters. Any real power wielded by first ladies has usually been sub rosa, except in the case of Hillary Clinton being given the controversial health-care reform portfolio by her husband.

That didn't work out so well, but Hillary of course trumped every one of her predecessors, becoming the first first lady to launch her own political campaign from the White House and end up a senator.

And for a long while she was looking like she could be the first to achieve the presidency. That's knocking it out of the ballpark in a way that must have first-lady historians everywhere in a tizzy.

Former president Bill Clinton, in his genial wrecking-ball way, might well have changed the nature of the first spouse's job forever.

Although maybe not: In Commander in Chief, the short-lived television series about a female president, President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis), had a very political "first husband" who declined to consult with the chef regarding state dinners. Instead, the fake TV president's mother moved into the White House to act as hostess while her daughter presumably answered that ringing 3 a.m. phone.

Now there's a thought - an outsourced first lady. In which case, perhaps there's an enterprising agency that could provide the candidates. The President's Club: "Our First Ladies are of the finest calibre ... well-groomed, gorgeously dressed, with perfect table manners and excellent charitable instincts ... many of them have law degrees."

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Notable first ladies

Eleanor Roosevelt

First lady from 1933 to 1945, married to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A champion of the underdog through staunch support of civil rights and women's movements. Redefined the role of first lady as the first to speak in front of a national convention, be a radio commentator and hold regular press conferences.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

First lady from 1961 to 1963, married to John F. Kennedy.

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Most famous for her impeccable style. One of the youngest first ladies, she made her first major project the restoration of the White House, which she showcased to the American public on a televised tour in 1962.

Claudia (Lady Bird) Johnson

First lady from 1963 to 1969, married to Lyndon Johnson.

An environmentalist, she gave Washington a facelift with her beautification project: "Where flowers bloom, so does hope." She was first to have a press

secretary and chief of staff of

her own.

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Elizabeth (Betty) Ford

First lady from 1974 to 1977, married to Gerald R. Ford.

Spoke out on controversial issues such as abortion, premarital sex and drugs, including her own addiction. Fought a very public battle with breast cancer while in the White House. Founded the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse and addiction in 1982.

Nancy Reagan

First lady from 1981 to 1989, married to Ronald Reagan.

Founded the "Just Say No" drug awareness campaign. Later urged President George W. Bush to stop blocking embryonic stem-cell research, arguing that it could lead to a cure for Alzheimer's, from which her husband died

in 2004.

Rasha Mourtada

A Canadian equivalent?

Unlike the first lady designation bestowed on wives of U.S. presidents, the prime minister's spouse doesn't have an official title, the same mandated responsibilities or expectations of involvement in public life.

Those married to Canada's political leaders often appear at political events and make an effort to align themselves with worthy causes.

But the only comparison that could be made between the U.S. first lady and the spouse of a Canadian leader would have to start at Rideau Hall. As the Queen's representative, the governor-general is Canada's head of state. So if Canada does have a "first lady" it would be Governor-General Michaëlle Jean's spouse, Jean-Daniel Lafond.

The role is not nearly as high-profile as the U.S. first lady, but the governor-general's spouse does have official responsibilities and duties.

The governor-general's spouse is known as the viceregal consort and is given the title of Excellency when the governor-general takes office.

The viceregal consort is also expected to share "in the ceremonial, domestic and representational aspects of the viceregal role," Rideau Hall spokeswoman Marie-Eve Létourneau wrote in an e-mail. That means he or she is expected to be there for constitutional, official and ceremonial duties, such as the Throne speech, state visits in other countries and Canada Day celebrations.

In addition, Ms. Létourneau said, all viceregal consorts take on their own programs "in support of the governor-general's broad themes."

For instance, Mr. Lafond was involved in the creation of a website,, to promote the activities of the governor-general's office, and is involved in the promotion of Canadian food and wine.

Carly Weeks

Photo gallery

See images of first ladies at

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