Irina Karamanos Adrian is a 34-year-old political organizer and anthropologist in Chile.
Karamanos agreed to take on the role when Boric was elected, but with a caveat that she would only assume the position to change it entirely.
In just nine months, she dissolved the institutional power of the First Lady, disbanded her staff, and abandoned her office — all in the name of democracy.
Karamanos remains averse to the antiquated gender stereotypes of a First Lady role. But more politically, she is firm in her belief that spouses of presidents should not be given such high-ranked positions in government — and the privileges and resources that come with those positions — if they have not been elected to office.
In the year following this maneuver away from power, Karamanos has remained a steadfast supporter of her partner — and a vocal advocate for innovations in democracy.
We sat down with her following her TED Talk at TEDWomen in Atlanta this past October to talk about gender, politics, and strengthening democracy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
→ Read more in our profile on Irina Karamanos Adrian
In Conversation with Irina Karamanos Adrian
Kamrin Baker, Good Good Good: I wanted to start by saying that I loved your TED Talk. I have never thought about the office of the First Lady like that. I’m sure you’ve encountered that a lot.
My most lingering question since I heard your speech is: What impact do you hope that your work has on other governments?
Irina Karamanos Adrian: First of all, thank you. I guess we can talk about many topics. But on that one, on the intention, I actually didn’t do it thinking of the impact it could have. I also was reminded of the surprise it was for me to get to know the position of First Lady in the first place by other people telling me that it was surprising for them to think about it. So this [TED Talk] was a great experience to close a circle. I have been going through with all the reflections and all the changes.
About the impact, I would say that it’s two things. On the one hand, I do think that we’ve got a very antiquated view on the role of the First Lady. It’s almost like royalty. It’s like an investiture of power, just because you’re family or because you’ve got an affectionate relationship with, in this case, the president.
So it’s based on things that aren’t democratic, right? If you don’t get elected to have that power, I do think that we should update that in every government possible.
Why? Not because I hate tradition. It’s not a personal thing. I’ve gotten a lot of criticism for this because some people thought this was a very personal rejection of this huge privilege I’d gotten to do good. A lot of people said that this would be a personal decision from someone who’s very young and wants to do other stuff. I do think that they’re missing the point of this decision being a very political one.
This means rejecting something because it’s not democratic, rejecting power when it’s not democratically given. It’s about updating our instruments in order for people to feel closer to the democratic systems again.
That’s one thing. I think that’s, for me, the most important one. But there is also another thing, which is the cultural reproduction of gender stereotypes, and the completeness of male authority, as if they could not manage by themselves.
KB: It’s almost, like, infantile, how we assume that male leaders need a female companion.
IKA: Yes, it’s very condescending to men, and very [objectifying] to women. Because yes, of course, they can have both [masculine and feminine] qualities, as every person does. And that someone is not incomplete because of not having a female person by his side.
We should trust more that the person we vote for, we legitimize them because they got voted, and that’s it. And if you want to talk about agency, let’s just assume they have it, right? And not talk of single or gay presidents as people that aren’t made for the position just because they’re missing something when they’re not.
KB: How do we continue to challenge those notions, that someone is incomplete without a partner or spouse?
IKA: I think the first thing is that we tend to be against the people we vote for very fast. We turn against them the next day.
That’s also a thing that I think is very prominent, too, because people see their vote similar to what they chose to buy somewhere. You’re so entitled individually, and then you expect the product to work just exactly as you thought it would.
And politics are not politics if they’re not situated, put into context. Context changes, and you’ve got to be able to respond to it with politics. And obviously, the responsibility of politicians is to keep doing this collectively. So yes, of course, if they do that behind doors and then they change their minds, or they had to use a different strategy to get to the same goal that they presented to you, you might feel like they’re changing the game. Or that suddenly they’re betraying you because they’re doing things differently than you thought they would.
And all that makes you immediately in some opposition to the politicians, even the ones you work for or voted for. So I just want to say that in the beginning, because then when it comes to women, it’s just worse.
We expect from minorities, we expect them to be better than the norm. If you elect a woman, you for sure expect more of her than what you expect from a man.
And the same thing — this is very old; it’s not just me saying it. I think it’s called The Good Savage. This concept talks about how we expect Indigenous peoples to have more degrees and to be nicer and to be many things because you have to be better than the good, heteronormative, white man. We expect so much of people that we have marginalized or given less rights to. And I think that’s very unfair.
KB: I think that there’s become this culture that’s almost like a fandom around politicians. People get really excited to support someone, but it’s not actually Beyonce up there. It’s someone who is just doing their job.
I think, like you said, it might turn people away from what democracy is, and people get to a point of apathy, or conversely, devotion.
As you talk about dismantling these antiquated systems, what do you imagine for the future of politics? What do you imagine is a more effective system?
IKA: I think that we are very used to entertainment culture. And I do think that show business and entertainment match this similar atmosphere of a campaign. And that’s a very different exercise for the politician, compared to the one that he has to do when he actually takes office.
Because on the one hand, during the campaign — this is why I never wanted to be a candidate — you are to tell people answers. You are to tell people where they should go, what you would do, what you will do, what is right. You’re telling people what’s right, and what’s wrong, and where you want to go, and your favorite color, and what people’s favorite color should be. You know what I mean?
People are voting for an idea, and they want a clear idea. They want answers, right? But then, the art of politics, what you really have to do in politics, is so different from that.
This is very interesting to me because I find it very disturbing that we see it as the same thing. I really think it’s very different to be a candidate and to do a campaign, compared to what you have to do after that.
So what do you have to do afterward? You have to be able to listen to different possible answers, maybe to the same questions that you answered in your campaign. You’ve got to sit at a table with other answers.
Why I say all this is because I think that we should change from the beginning. We should change the expectations of campaigns, of discourse, and of debates. Knowing that maybe we would win more if, after the debate, there was a third answer made out of these two candidates.
Maybe we have to build a political culture where the winner is not the one who imposes his answer on top of the other one, but who manages to sometimes maybe agree with the other person and just actually let go of his own idea — or part of it.
And what’s happening today, in the world and a lot in the U.S. right now, is that what we see as the ultra-right is they are not moving an inch. If you look at the mechanism, you can watch it and it’s like a manual all over the world, it’s the same. They don’t move from what they’re saying. This is a very authoritarian style of … even talking, just relating to people. I think that has to change. I think they are the biggest expression of what I’m pointing out.
Kamrin: Definitely. I think that way of thinking is also prevalent on the left, that stubbornness of “my way or the highway,” where we get stuck in these camps.
When did you start thinking about the role of First Lady as it relates to democracy?
IKA: Before being the partner of the presidential candidate, I absolutely never thought of this. I did think about monarchies. I did study a bit of political science. I did study anthropology completely. So, I relate to power structures. I have learned a lot about that in my past. I was already in politics when [Borcic] started his campaign.
But this figure, [the First Lady], I never really saw it. It was like a blind spot. So, I was very aware of how monarchies work, but I was not aware of the similarities. I never thought of the similarities between that and First Ladies. I was aware of how relationships work and of domestic power distribution inside of a heteronormative relationship.
But this role, it’s like the most conservative version of a woman in a heteronormative partnership. That’s what’s expected of the current First Lady. That’s what they want you to be.
I started off from a very wrong point because I wasn’t married. I was too young. My career wasn’t, like, done yet, and I’m a feminist. So that already was very problematic.
I started realizing, I don’t know how to describe it better, but it’s as if you would take some things from your house and take them to your office. It’s as if you were part of the President’s domestic environment, and you become crucial just because of that. Then he takes you with him.
And it’s been an interesting time because I researched this a lot, and there were First Ladies in Chile who were awesome. I mean, there were times where, of course, there was no formal position for women in politics. So the partners of politicians were the ones who were playing a role. For instance, if they would make dinner at home with the rest of the politicians, maybe they would say something, maybe they would do something.
Or when they started to actually go to the presidential palace, they would start getting this role and they would start influencing. And some of them got public exposure. And then they would say things that other women couldn’t, and they would advocate for women’s rights, and they would help a lot of people socially.
They led these charitable foundations that were very crucial ideas in the beginning when the government couldn’t do things fast enough.
For instance, the biggest foundation that I presided [over] when I had this charge was one for childhood education. But it started off being a foundation that had to take care of feeding hungry children. So if you’ve got 40,000 hungry children a day, you try to look for a solution, and that’s as fast as it gets.
The reasons why these foundations were created, the reasons why First Ladies exist and then got institutionalized — how that started — is not really the problem. Because according to those times, you can understand almost everything about it. But the thing is we haven’t updated anything about that. We’ve just gotten used to it.
And that’s why when I was confronted with this question [to be or not to be the First Lady], I felt personally uncomfortable with me having power, but nobody — obviously, because I wasn’t running for anything — nobody had elected me.
I don’t feel shame of power in general, but if you are not part of the democratic mechanisms, then I think you should feel ashamed of having power.
KB: I appreciate what you said about past decades and how there have been good First Ladies because it was the only role of power women could have. But at this point in 2023, there are many options for women to have power.
I imagine that’s what people miss when they have critiques, would you say so?
IKA: They’re like “no, you could have power, you could do good with this. Why don’t you want to do good stuff?”
It sounds offensive that you would be so rude to give away the chance to do something good. That’s what they expect of you, just to do good things. And you say no to that? It’s rude.
I think it came across like that for many people. I was just this spoiled, young feminist that was not understanding the big opportunity it meant to do something good for my country. As if I was leaving service or renouncing it, as if that was my destiny, the opportunity and the privilege that they were offering to me. But I feel as if I’m doing a bigger service to the country, rejecting that power.
I might think of myself as someone who has great ideas and that might create great new foundations, or great projects, or say great things. But maybe that’s a coincidence, if I’m right about myself. And maybe I’m also wrong about myself. And maybe the president didn’t choose to have the best politician as a wife or a partner because he doesn’t have to.
There are so many coincidences that lead you to be there, so having so much power is just … it’s just too arbitrary. It’s too random. So, yeah, even though you can have great ideas, and be a great person and whatever, that’s not the point. The point is you’re not there because somebody — the people — wanted you to be there.
KB: You mentioned that you were surprised by how well-received this idea has been here in the U.S. because it’s not often like that in Chile. I’m curious what the response has been, and has it gotten better? What do you think the disconnect is there?
IKA: I have gotten some prizes for innovation. I do get recognition in a lot of circles, journalists and intellectuals and also other politicians, — not only left-sided people — who, mostly, I think, liked that I changed the presidency of the foundations. They thought that was actually professionalizing it. That came across well.
But before I talked about this, it’s not like people really knew so much about the First Lady. It’s not like they do now. I’m not pretending that I educated Chile about this. I just took away something that I thought was a conflict of interest. It was open to political favors. I wanted to change that for sure. If you just would have given me one shot, I would have done that. And I did.
But what I mean with the recognition of what I did and the whole atmosphere around it, like the cultural impact, is not there yet. But maybe one day.
What I think is the reason for that is that it comes across as rudeness or arrogance, like what I said before. It looks as if you were abandoning a responsibility you were given — and also the president.
You’re abandoning him — you’re abandoning taking care of him. You look as if you were spoiled because you didn’t like it and all those sensational, cultural points of view about it that are more emotional.
The biggest feeling you get when people look at this is “not nice.” You’re not a nice lady. This is not being a good woman. So, not being a good and nice woman is just not well-received. It’s also not a very popular thing to do because it’s not romantic enough.
But also, it is not popular because you’re not really making an educational reform or you’re not reforming the health system. It’s not really important.
KB: It doesn’t necessarily impact day-to-day people.
IKA: No, not at all. And I never pretended that to have a huge impact on people’s everyday life. It’s also not something I expected. I know this is more vanguard than popular. I know that. I knew that from the beginning, and that was also difficult for me personally, because I was always writing about stuff that was about how to impact the majority of the people.
I studied education. I went to the most structural point of society because I wanted to study how to make impact even greater. This is not my style.
KB: But this is where you found yourself.
IKA: This is what I did with what I had.
KB: I think it’s so interesting to be received as an unlikable woman. This concept is so fascinating to me because men abandon things all the time. Or get impeached multiple times. Or mess up multiple times.
It’s almost this expectation that women shouldn’t quit things. They should grin and bear it. You’re supposed to accept the pain and sacrifice.
IKA: Would you expect a man to go anywhere with you without working? Or spending their time thinking about your relationship?
It’s also professionalizing the relationship because you suddenly have to think about looking happy together or whatever they tell you to. Do you imagine a guy doing all that work, but also not earning anything, and leaving his profession to do this? Really? Do you picture that? No.
KB: I remember when Hillary Clinton ran for president in the U.S. and there was this dialogue like “Bill would be the First Gentleman, that’s so weird.” But you know the expectations for him would be even lower, especially since he was already the president. And it makes me realize, again, how unnecessary that role is, when you reverse it.
IKA: Yeah, I do think that if I were to talk about innovation, or how I see this as an innovation, maybe it could be better received, like it was here [in the U.S.]. But as I said, politics work in their own context. I think it’s not only seen as an innovation, but also a disruption. And I understand that. I’m aware of why this is uncomfortable, and why, therefore, I am uncomfortable.
If you do something uncomfortable, then you come across as uncomfortable. And that’s fine because feminists and left-wing politicians know how important it is to feel uncomfortable, because that’s where change starts to happen. If you’re too comfortable, it means the status quo is all right with you. And that’s just not really the definition of being left. Or feminist.
But it is a challenge to have a very specific image, that one of the greatest descriptions attached to you is ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘cryptic’ or ‘unclear.’
People are like, “Why? What? Who asked her to make this visible? We were okay with whatever was happening there. We don’t care about the First Lady.”
No, of course you don’t. And that’s fine. And I’m not forcing people. I don’t want to force anyone to think that thinking about First Ladies is the most important thing for anyone. I’m just saying that I have to think about it, and this is what I think about it.
That doesn’t come across like that because you are in such a high position of exposure because you’re next to the president. So suddenly, everything you say should be important. And then when it isn’t, and when you’re talking about things that are from a small niche, then you’re a joke because why would you misuse or lose the opportunity of talking about something important?
Well, because I think I should not be using any institutional platforms to talk about anything.
Who else would do anything about that unimportant position than a person that is there? There are very few people that can do something about that position. If I am one of those people, well, then I’m going to do something.
KB: To me, it seems like what you’re asking is for people to just think about systems of power instead of just going along with them.
IKA: Yeah, really just think about any state innovation that makes the state lighter or makes more space for other places, for people who really do need to be represented and need a space inside a state — which is not the woman of the president.
There are so many people that are underrepresented in our systems. So why should we not make a different distribution of state functions? We can revise them.
I hope all governments revise everything. If it turns out that some things are crucial to people, you can keep it. For me, it’s just, are you updating your governments or not? Why that structure and not another one? We could ask ourselves that every time someone gets elected into office.
There are countries that create new ministries, for example, which is similar to the creation of new political parties. I think that’s pretty healthy for a political system that you say, “okay, we’ve got this huge priority now. We have to have a ministry for environmental issues,” for instance. I see that as something that makes sense to me.
Also having more political parties, or old ones having less militancy makes sense to me. A party is there because people organize around an idea. That’s what they’re supposed to do, so people can know what they’re voting for and not just a person that you don’t know. That’s why it’s organized that way.
So, if there are parties that are not representing an idea anymore and they’re just there because the people stayed there, then it’s similar to a state structure that is just there because it reproduces in time and nobody updates it.
Society changes way faster than its institutions. But institutions are created by society, and so they should change, too. Otherwise, they’re just ruins of something we thought one day.
A version of this article was originally published in The 2024 Gender Edition of the Goodnewspaper.
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Header image courtesy of Jasmina Tomic/TED