CLEVELAND — News that a portion of Melania Trump’s Republican convention opening night speech appeared to be plagiarized from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic convention address threw the two women into vivid contrast Tuesday and led to fresh questions about Trump’s claims about her education.
Though Trump says on her website that she obtained a degree in design and architecture from a university in Slovenia, her biographers have made clear that she left college after her first year to pursue a career as a model.
Not finishing — or even attending — college is a first lady background that’s been more common in Republican administrations over the past 75 years, perhaps reflecting the greater gender traditionalism on the GOP side of the aisle.
Obama, for her part, is a graduate of Harvard Law School. And while her educational background is unusual in American first lady history, having earned a graduate degree is something Obama shares with Hillary Clinton, who also earned a law degree, and with Laura Bush, who holds a master’s degree in library sciences.
Melania Trump, should her husband win the White House, would represent the return of an earlier type of first lady, one who did not graduate from college and instead pursued a career in a less verbal, more visual arena.
The last first lady with that sort of arts-and-culture background was Betty Ford, who studied dance at the Bennington College School of Dance and later at Martha Graham in New York. Joining Ford in the non-bachelor’s degree-holding club are Mamie Eisenhower, who attended finishing school in an era when women rarely went to college, Barbara Bush, who dropped out of Smith College after one year to marry, and Rosalynn Carter, who attended Georgia Southwestern College before marrying and moving with her new husband.
The other recent first ladies are college graduates. Jacqueline Kennedy held a Bachelor of Arts degree from George Washington University, where she studied French literature. Lady Bird Johnson was issued two bachelor’s degrees, one in journalism, from the University of Texas. Pat Nixon earned a bachelor’s from the University of Southern California in merchandising after working her way through junior college. And Nancy Reagan graduated from Smith College.
The increasing educational attainment of first ladies in recent administrations mirrors the increasing educational attainment of presidents and the population at large. Starting with Bill Clinton, all U.S. presidents have been graduate degree-holders, and Ronald Reagan was the last U.S. president to not hold at least one degree from an Ivy League institution. Donald Trump would continue the Ivy League tradition as a holder of an undergraduate degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.