Meet The First Lady Who Transformed Her Title — And Then Quit

An illustration of two pieces of paper ripped in half; one side reads "president," the other reads "first lady."

If the average American saw Irina Karamanos Adrian walking down the street, they’d probably make some innocuous assumptions about her. 

They might think she’s got good taste in lipstick, or that she has Latin heritage. They’d likely categorize her as a millennial, and maybe they’d even go as far as to assume she had progressive political views, like many other 34-year-old women.

The average Chilean, however, would immediately clock her as the long-term domestic partner to President Gabriel Boric.

They would know her as the woman who became First Lady, only to completely dissolve the title less than a year later. 

The First Lady Who Stepped Down

Boric took office in March of 2022 as the youngest-ever president in the nation’s history, and one of several leftist politicians who rose to power in the region. He gained prominence as a student activist while studying law at the University of Chile and became a member of Congress.

He and Karamanos had been dating for about two years when the Social Convergence Party — which they both had a hand in forming, with goals of broadening social justice — pointed to Boric as their future president. 

Irina Karamanos Adrian and Chilean President Gabriel Boric
Karamanos and Boric together on election day in 2022. Photo courtesy of Irina Karamanos Adrian/Instagram

With her own zest for political action, Karamanos was quick to support her partner, helping him collect the more than 30,000 signatures he needed to qualify for the ballot. By the time of the election, she was leading the feminist front of the campaign.

Karamanos studied anthropology and political science, and her knack for organizing came naturally. But the old institutions by which politics are often shaped weren’t for her.

When Boric was elected, she immediately resisted the title of First Lady, though she reluctantly agreed to serve in the role — but with one caveat: She’d leave as soon as she transformed the position.

It only took about nine months.

“We all know how traditions work. They repeat in time until something or someone interrupts it,” Karamanos said on stage at TEDWomen this past October.

Dissolving an Institution

It wasn’t necessarily that she didn’t want the role or didn’t think she had what it took to help progress the country. Simply put, she just didn’t think the position should exist. 

“Whatever your partner does, do you picture yourself getting up in the morning and accompanying him or her to his or her job? Now picture that job being to rule over a country,” Karamanos positioned the TED crowd.

“As much as it comes as a surprise to you, imagine what a surprise it comes as to the voters, who didn’t elect you. They elected the president, and the president chose me, but surely not thinking about me becoming an authority one day.”

Irina Karamanos Adrian speaks on the TED stage
Irina Karamanos Adrian speaks at TEDWomen 2023 in Atlanta, GA. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED

While she has similar beliefs as her partner and was eager to advance his campaign, Karamanos refused to have her own identity eclipsed by the office of the president — or the office of the First Lady.

“Suddenly, you become a very special kind of woman: another half,” she said. “My approach would be to tackle both issues: the democratic illegitimacy of having the institution of marriage so embedded in the state … and the gender bias imagined around this figure.” 

Karamanos explained the institutional role of the First Lady in Chile: She was given a team, an office (“not just any office,” she clarified in her TED Talk, “the most beautiful one.”), and authority over six foundations that were created by past First Ladies.

“You get to preside [over] all of these foundations regardless of your professional background,” she explained. 

These foundations, which focused on things like childhood education, women’s empowerment, and the arts, were moved under the jurisdiction of existing ministries (like the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Women and Gender Equity), allowing designated officials to elect leaders to govern them — not the First Lady.

But before this, Karamanos worked to ensure that the foundations themselves were still relevant and meaningful.

“I talked to unions and workers,” she said in her TED Talk. “I improved salaries, made job listings public, made processes more transparent, and tried to make standards higher in general.”

She also consulted former First Ladies and influential feminists to guide her decisions, acknowledging that the work done in the past was instrumental to contemporary women’s leadership.

Irina Karamanos speaks at a podium
Karamanos speaks at a press conference in October 2022. Photo courtesy of Irina Karamanos Adrian/Instagram

“The reasons why these foundations were created, the reasons why First Ladies existed and got institutionalized — how that started — is not really the problem. There were times where, of course, there was no formal position for women in politics. But the thing is that we haven’t updated anything about that,” Karamanos told Good Good Good in a sit-down interview in Atlanta. 

“When it comes to women in power, when it comes to women in politics, of course, we want as many as possible,” she said in her TED Talk. “But the good news is: We can vote for them.”

Still, the months-long plan to absolve the First Lady of influence was met with skepticism. Why wouldn’t someone want to be given unequivocal privilege and resources to spend on her interests? 

“My goal for taking on the institutional side of the First Lady was … to take away power from a position that is a result of affection and not of democratic process,” Karamanos said in her TED Talk.

 “Some people may think that this is a personal rejection of a privilege. Instead, it is a political rejection of power from where it doesn’t belong. I am not to have power that people have not given me.”

Legitimizing Power, Regardless of Gender

Karamanos started publicly questioning power relations and why exactly spouses of presidents should have such high-ranked positions in government — and what that means about her relationship, too.

The other element of being a First Lady, Karamanos explained, is protocol — or being a public companion to the president.

“It turns out, we still look at masculine authorities as people who need to be complimented by a feminine other,” she said in her Talk. “But if you think about a woman that has just been elected, or a woman in power, we expect her to have both male and female qualities.” 

The gender stereotypes at the core of the position of First Lady speak to two things, she said: “That relationships in such high-ranking, visible platforms are expected to be heteronormative and traditional,” and “how embedded marriage is in state.”

Plus, it’s just condescending. 

“Women accompanying presidents are still seen as assets, seen as giving the president an image of more stability, of completeness, of balance,” she said. “I say we remove marriage out of the presidential must-haves and legitimize the person we vote for and assume he or she will have enough personal agency.”

Gabriel Boric and Irina Karamanos Adrian walk side by side
President Boric and Karamanos continue to attend events together — only, without political protocol. Photo courtesy of Irina Karamanos Adrian/Instagram

Karamanos is still happily supportive of Boric and active in his life — but now, as a loving partner and not an ornamental official. 

“Now I’m just me. I have no team, no office, no official role. I don’t take any resources from the state,” she said in her TED Talk. “I still have a lot of public exposure, and I still attend meaningful events with my partner.”

At the core of Karamanos’s historic choice to abandon her post is not her partner or her own ambitions — but an unrelenting desire for stronger democracies.

“Making changes in governmental institutions, updating them, making them more legitimate, and taking away parts that don’t represent contemporary needs anymore … might make people feel [closer], more reflected in the instrument of democracies,” she said.

“If making symbolic cultural and institutional changes increases our attachment to democratic values, then I say it’s worth a try.”

Read our full interview with former First Lady of Chile, Irina Karamanos Adrian.

A version of this article was originally published in The 2024 Gender Edition of the Goodnewspaper.

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Article Details

December 27, 2023 8:55 AM
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