Dear Miss Manners: A novel I once read imagined a woman winning the U.S. presidency. Her husband was referred to as the first husband.

Aside from the fact that it seems that the masculine equivalent of the first lady should be the first gentleman, would it not seem reasonable to Miss Manners that a female president could have a first lady?

In American history, the first lady has not always been the wife of the president. When the president was widowed or a bachelor, a close female relative served as the White House hostess and thus was known as the first lady.

Now that it appears that the United States may soon have a female president — if not with this election, surely with one in the near future — does it not seem reasonable that such a president could ask her mother, daughter, sister or other close female relative to serve as the first lady and spare her husband the need to take over the east wing of the White House?

A ruling from Miss Manners would be greatly appreciated.

Gentle Reader: She is delighted to oblige, provided we begin with the admission that "first lady" is an unofficial and rather silly title. Miss Manners agrees with Jacqueline Kennedy, who said it made her sound like a horse.

The president's spouse is a private citizen with no official rank, and thus is properly addressed, in writing and in person, as Mrs. Washington (with neither her nor her husband's given name; she would be THE Mrs. Washington, with no danger of being mistaken for Mrs. Chuck Washington).

However, courtesy accords precedence to her, or to another lady serving as the president's hostess. This was referred to, in the era of more complicated and more rigorously observed precedence systems, as her being "the first lady of the land."

Hence the title. But its history does not go back all that far. There was a lot of backsliding when egalitarianism was new around here, and Mrs. Washington was often called "Lady Washington," while Mrs. Madison relished being called "Her Majesty." Even when the title of "first lady" became popular, it never applied to the nonspouses who served as hostesses.

A female president would be the hostess at state occasions; she cannot designate another lady to preside and therefore outrank her socially. What she would need, in addition to the professionals already provided for putting on such events, is an understanding public that does not keep asking for her recipes and notions about flower-arranging.

And now to the husband. If anything is sillier than "first lady," it is "first husband" (unless this is necessary to distinguish him from a marital successor also on the scene). He would be the host and addressed simply by his name and "Mr." or another honorific he held, such as general or governor.

Perhaps this is the place to say once again that American protocol dictates that only one person at a time can hold the title of president of the United States. Former presidents should never be so addressed, although they have even taken to calling one another that. Miss Manners would have thought that having reached that position would surely have cured anyone of status anxiety.

Readers may write to Miss Manners at [email protected], or via postal mail at United Media, 200 Madison Ave., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10016 or (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper. Miss Manners' newest book is "No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice," written under her real name, Judith Martin. © Judith Martin

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