Samantha Schmidt, The Washington Post (WP)
EnergiesNet.com 11 21 2022
Irina Karamanos could have taken the car to work. But it was springtime in Santiago and the anthropologist and political organizer wantedto walk.
Wearing a backpack and chunkywhite, blue and neon-green sneakers, she blended in with the other 30-somethings commuting to their jobs. But when she arrived at a stoplight, a pedestrian paused and registered the familiar face of one of the most prominent women in the country:
The first lady who didn’t want to be first lady any more.
It had been three weeks since Karamanos, the partner of Chilean President Gabriel Boric, had announced that she would stepping down from the role — a job she didn’t seek; a job she doesn’t believe should exist.
She had resisted the title from the moment the then-35-year-old Boric was elected president last December. Sworn in in March, he was the youngest leader in Latin America, oneof several leftists now taking power across the region. She was the feminist activist who helped him win. She initially agreed, reluctantly, to serve as first lady, in the hope she could transform the role. But the decision angered many supporters.
In the months since, she had worked quietly to overhaul the role. She planned to move the responsibilities — mostly, running six foundations, overseeing programs such as a children’s day care network, a science museum and a women’s development organization— to the ministries she believed could better lead them and eventually shut the office down. In doing so, she hoped to reshape what it would mean to be the partner of a president, not only in Chile but around the world.
First, though, she needed to convince people across the government that her plan wasn’t so radical — that it was possible to change generations of tradition and bureaucracy. And she wanted to do it in a way that would ensure that the changes would outlast her.
Which was why, on her Thursday morning walk, she was firing off phone calls to ministers and members of the six foundations the first lady is supposed to lead.
“No one is answering,” shetold her press secretary, so she began sending voice memos instead.
One went to a member of a foundation where some had been resistant to the idea. The children’s orchestra didn’t want to lose the prestige that came from a first lady’s presence.
The role hasnothing to do with Karamanos’s skills or experience or degrees, she thought. All that matters is the title.
And she knew she wasso much more than that.
Dismantling an institution
This wasn’t how Karamanos and Boric expected to spend their 30s. The couple had been dating for about two years when it became clear that Boric, a student activist-turned-member of Congress, was their party’s best option to run for president. Karamanos took the lead in collecting the more than 30,000 signatures he needed to qualify for the ballot.
Karamanos, 33, didn’t think of herself as the kind of person who would put her plans on hold for a man. The daughter of immigrants — a Uruguayan mother of German descent and a Greek father who died when she was 8 — she’s fluent in four languages, has studied two others, and holds degrees in educational sciences and anthropology from Germany’s Heidelberg University. If she agreed to serve as first lady, it would be a demanding, full-time job for no pay.
“From now on, everything I do will come second,” she said. “The first thing everyone will know about me was that I was the president’s partner.”
The concept of a first lady is an American one, dating back to Dolley Madison, the wife of the fourth president, who helped furnish the White House and hosted social affairs for politicians of both parties. Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy advanced the role in the public imagination, fostering the expectation that first ladies would accompany the president and champion noncontroversial causes — expectations also adopted in parts of Latin America.
Karamanos is not the first reluctant first lady — see, for example,Melania Trump. In Ecuador, Anne Malherbe Gosselin, the Belgian-born wife of former president Rafael Correa, was mostly absent from the role, which she described as classist. In Mexico, Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller, the wife of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has continued her work as a university professor.
“I didn’t see why I needed to leave my job to accompany my husband who changed his job,” Müller told The Washington Post. But she continues to represent the Mexican government at diplomatic events.
Historians say Jill Biden, who has long taught English composition at Northern Virginia Community College, is the first U.S. first lady to hold a paying job outside the White House while her husband was president.
But none of these women haveoverhauled the role while in office as Karamanos is attempting, said Carolina Guerrero, a Chilean political scientist. In the United States, Ohio University historianKatherine Jellison says, such an effort would be “political dynamite.”
It makes sense, perhaps, that Chile would pave the way. It’s a country previously led by a woman, Michelle Bachelet, who delegated the responsibilities of first lady to two female politicians in her first term and to her son in her second. Chileans have seen what the presidential palace looks like without a first lady.
But Karamanos wants to make this the norm — not the exception.
In early October, after eight months of avoiding press interviews, she emerged publicly to announce that she had made good on her promise
“The institutional role of the first lady as we know it now,” she told reporters, “will end.”
Convincing a nation to change
During one of her last weeks in the presidential palace, Karamanos dug through her backpack and pulled out a curling iron and an iPad with a cracked screen and stickers. She always felt a bit out of place in the office, with its chandelier and gold velvet drapes, where the previous first lady spent more than $2,000 a month on floral arrangements and Karamanos kept a single artificial bouquet by the window.
Later that week, Irina would sit at the head of an oval table leading a board of a dozen people voting on her plan to detach their foundation, a science museum, from the office of the first lady. She explained to them — most much older than her — that it would be more appropriately run by a person designated by the minister of culture.
“The partner of the president is chosen to be a partner,” she said, “not to be a president of foundations.”
The board approved her plan unanimously. But outside the palace walls,Karamanos knew, many Chileans did not.
Boric’s approval ratings had plummeted to new lows — just 27 percent in one poll. In September, he suffered his greatest setback yet, when voters rejected the new constitution he had helped propel.
Karamanos’s efforts rubbed some the wrong way from the beginning, when headlines reported that the name of the office of the first lady had been changed to the “Irina Karamanos cabinet.” For some, it reinforced the idea that Karamanos was making the transformation about herself. (She later called thename change an “administrative error.”)
Marcela Solabarrieta, 52, considers Karamanos’s efforts “impolite.” “If she didn’t want this, then she shouldn’t have chosen to be the partner of a presidential candidate,” she said.
Alejandra Morales, a 55-year-old visual artist, said Karamanos should modernize the job — not eliminate it.
“We didn’t elect you,” one man tweeted. “This wasn’t in the president’s program. Why do you assume your own agenda, leaving the figure of the first lady like this, a decorative figure, taking away her powers?”
But the way Karamanos sees it, taking away those powers could empower future presidential partners.It’s about autonomy, she says, both professional and economic.
‘What does Irina want?’
Karamanos has thought of this year as sort of an anthropological experiment. So when a group of political scientists and gender studies experts asked her to speak with them about the effort, she jumped at the chance.
Sitting around a table at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, the women grilled her with questions that have long fascinated — and gnawed at — Karamanos.
Beyond taking away the office of the first lady, how could Karamanos actually change the way Chileans see the president’s partner? Is it possible, they asked, to remove gender roles from the presidency?
Karamanos told the women about the many times people on the street have asked her to “take care” of the president.
“Of course I take care of him. But what if I didn’t, you know? What would happen? Can this man not be president, can he not be self-sufficient?”
She wanted to break the idea that a powerful man can be trusted only with a woman by his side, to soften and balance him. She still planned to accompany Boric to some dinners and events — if for no other reason than to be able to see him. But she won’t go on every international trip or take part in every official ceremony. She won’t attend annual summits of first ladies.
But how, they asked, could she have a normal life? How could she find a job that wasn’t a conflict of interest?
Karamanos thought about the kind of job she would love — a return to research, perhaps focused on education. But she didn’t yet know what that would look like.
After she left the university classroom, she looked back at her notes. One of the questions was underlined: What does Irina want?
Soon, she hoped, she’d be able to define the answer.
Paulina Villegas contributed to this report.
washingtonpost.com 11 13 2022