Betty Boyd Caroli. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Even before the federal capital was permanently situated on the Potomac, the president’s wife had become a public personage. Martha Washington arrived in New York City one month after her husband’s April 1789 inauguration to the acclaim typical of that reserved for a royal consort. On her journey north from Mount Vernon, newspapers reported on the progress of her trip, including the fact that she had been feted at a party in eastern Pennsylvania. George Washington arranged for her to make the crossing from New Jersey to Manhattan on the presidential barge, and New Yorkers lined the streets to cheer “Lady Washington” all the way to the house Congress had rented for the chief executive on Cherry Street.
Until about 1860, the role of president’s wife remained largely local. Few people outside the capital city had an opportunity to observe her actions or learn about her activities. But as the city of Washington grew and the number of elected officials and government workers multiplied, the manager of the presidential household became more prominent. Magazines with national circulations began to feature articles about the president’s family. As travel conditions in the United States improved, presidents ventured farther away from the capital, and when their wives accompanied them (as Lucy Hayes did on Rutherford B. Hayes’s western journey in 1880) many Americans caught their first glimpse of a president’s wife, and they began to take greater interest in her activities.
While the social responsibilities of being First Lady had been apparent from the earliest days of the Republic, much about the role remained for each incumbent to define for herself. Some presidents’ wives chose to maintain a distance from their husbands’ jobs, while others made no secret of their wish to be involved. As more American women began to define lives for themselves outside the home, working and participating in important public decisions, the role of First Lady expanded, too. Some wives became major players in their husbands’ administrations. In 1986, a major newspaper described Nancy Reagan as having achieved something like an “associate presidency”; in 1993, one magazine outlined a First Lady’s accomplishments in an article titled “One Hundred Days of Hillary.”
Reclusive Roles, Little Political Impact
For much of the nineteenth century, presidential wives were either unavailable to the public or unwilling to assume a prominent role. Widowed presidents and those whose wives preferred to keep a low public profile often turned to young substitutes—daughters, daughters-in-law, and nieces—to handle the social side of the office and the management of the household. The substitutes’ youth (all were under thirty years old) evidently excused them from criticism for what might have been judged serious lapses in a mature matron, and the young women drew enormous admiring attention to themselves and to the presidential family.
The death of Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson, the wife of Andrew Jackson, on 22 December 1828 left a saddened president-elect who eventually called in two young women relatives to handle social duties for him. Thomas Jefferson, also a widower, had relied on a daughter to help with entertaining, but Andrew Jackson, who had no female children of his own, turned to Emily Donelson, wife of a nephew who served as the president’s secretary. After Emily’s death in December 1836, another niece, Sarah Yorke Jackson, wife of Andrew Jackson, Jr., the president’s adopted son, helped manage the social calendar.
Martin Van Buren had been a widower for eighteen years when he took up the presidency, and he enlisted the help of his daughter-in-law Angelica Singleton Van Buren after her marriage to Abraham Van Buren in 1838. On a wedding trip to Europe, the son and daughter-in-law of the American chief executive had been treated as royalty, and when they returned to the United States and took up residence in the executive mansion, Angelica Van Buren occasionally incorporated into the president’s entertaining some of the royal customs she had observed abroad. Arranging herself and a few women friends in a tableau, she invited guests to walk by and view the courtlike formation.
In March 1841, Anna Symmes Harrison delayed joining her husband, William Henry Harrison, in Washington for his inauguration, on the grounds of ill health and grief. One of the Harrisons’ sons had died the previous June, and, at sixty-five years of age, Anna Harrison did not look forward to a journey from Ohio to the capital, especially a winter journey. A widowed daughter-in-law, Jane Harrison, helped manage the White House during the brief Harrison presidency.
Letitia Christian Tyler moved to Washington, D.C., from nearby Virginia when John Tyler ascended to the presidency in April 1841, but she played no public role. A stroke suffered in 1839 had partially paralyzed her, and she died in the White House on 10 September 1842 (the first president’s wife to die during her husband’s term). Priscilla Cooper Tyler, from a family of Shakespearean actors, became a popular hostess for the president after she married the eldest Tyler son.
On 26 June 1844, John Tyler married Julia Gardiner, a twenty-four-year-old New Yorker whose father had been a friend of the president’s. In the remaining eight months of John Tyler’s administration, Julia Tyler drew considerable attention to the president’s household. A shrewd promoter of herself and of the president, she hired her own press agent—a first for a president’s spouse. To emphasize the ceremonial aspects of the chief executive’s role, Julia Tyler arranged for the playing of “Hail to the Chief” when the president made public, ceremonial appearances, and she adopted royal trappings for herself. Driving around the capital in a carriage drawn by white horses, she projected a royal image, marked by her preference for receiving guests while seated on a raised platform and wearing a long trained dress and plumed headdress. Although she did no lobbying—in the twentieth-century sense of that term—she used social gatherings to relay her political views, such as her support of the annexation of Texas.
Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor was educated in one of New York City’s best schools for young women, but she lived most of her adult life in military and frontier settings and showed little interest in running the White House. She had not wanted her husband, Zachary Taylor, to venture into politics at the relatively advanced age of sixty-three, and she made little secret of her disdain for a public role for herself when her husband won the presidency in 1848. Leaving the hostessing to her youngest daughter, Betty Taylor Bliss, she confined her activities to those involving family and close friends in the private part of the president’s residence. Margaret Taylor’s reclusiveness prompted many rumors, including the allegations that she smoked a pipe and spoke unintelligibly, all denied by her relatives.
Abigail Powers Fillmore became First Lady in July 1850, but she took little part in the thirty-two-month-long presidency of her husband, Millard Fillmore. Described by acquaintances as a “notable reader” and “remarkably well informed” on the issues of the day, she appeared at few receptions and left most of the hostessing to her teenage daughter, Mary. The library that Abigail Fillmore established on the second floor of the White House served as her strongest legacy—she had been disappointed to find so few books in the executive mansion when she first arrived there.
Jane Appleton Pierce had never shown much interest in politics, and from the time of her marriage to Franklin Pierce in 1834 she expressed clear dislike for the city of Washington. She blamed the capital’s full social life for tempting her husband to drink to excess, and she concluded that his political success had exacted its own price—the deaths of two of the Pierces’ young sons. She was distressed to hear of her husband’s nomination for president in 1852, and she prayed for his defeat. In January 1853, President-elect Pierce, his wife, and their only surviving son, Benjamin, were traveling in Massachusetts when Benjamin was killed in a railroad accident. Grieving Jane Pierce refused to attend her husband’s inauguration in March, and she did not take up residence in the executive mansion for several weeks. After she did move in, she relied on female relatives to assist her with hostessing while she kept a low public profile throughout her husband’s term.
James Buchanan, a bachelor, turned to a young niece, Harriet Lane, to serve as White House hostess. Twenty-six years old at the time of her uncle’s inauguration in March 1857, she achieved great popularity in the next four years, and although her impact was entirely social and ceremonial, she has sometimes been called the first “modern First Lady” because of the favorable attention she called to the role. Her youth and beauty attracted many admirers, and she gave more brilliant parties than had been seen in the capital since the 1820s. Babies were named for her, a song was dedicated to her, and many women imitated her hairstyle and wardrobe. Americans who had little hope of gaining the president’s ear went to Harriet Lane instead. She received requests from Native Americans for help, and she drew attention to the arts by inviting painters and writers to the White House.
Eliza McCardle Johnson was ill with tuberculosis when her husband, Andrew Johnson, became president upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, and she showed little pleasure in the limelight. A married daughter, Martha Johnson Patterson, managed the president’s household and won praise for her down-to-earth style. One of Patterson’s first public statements after arriving in the capital may have disarmed some potential critics. “We are plain folks from Tennessee, called here by a national calamity,” she had said. “I hope not too much will be expected of us.” In line with her views on economy and practicality, she arranged for milk cows to graze on the White House lawn, and she covered the mansion’s worn carpets with plain muslin. Her mother reportedly made only two public appearances during her entire tenure as First Lady: the first at a dinner party from which she left coughing a few minutes after being seated, and the second at a children’s party for her grandchildren and their friends, at which she announced that she was “an invalid” and left soon after her arrival.
Much about Eliza Johnson remains unclear. Although her formal education was superior to Andrew Johnson’s at the time of their marriage on 17 May 1827 (when he was eighteen and she was sixteen), the commonly expressed view that she taught him to read and write is an exaggeration. A prospective biographer of Eliza Johnson concluded after years of research that Andrew Johnson valued his wife’s judgment as much as that of any of his advisers, leaving unclear how much he relied on anyone. By some accounts, Eliza Johnson showed a keen interest in politics, and in the White House she clipped newspaper articles for her husband, shrewdly separating the good news from the bad. She followed the 1868 impeachment proceedings against President Johnson carefully, announcing at the conclusion that she had been confident of acquittal from the beginning.
Shy and intellectual in her interests, Lucretia Rudolph Garfield had shown little pleasure in the capital social life before her husband, James A. Garfield, won the presidency in 1880, and as First Lady, her main concern for the White House was scholarly. She had been surprised by the lack of information on the building and its furnishings and had gone to the Library of Congress to begin research shortly before she became ill with malaria in May 1881 and went to Elberon, New Jersey, to convalesce. Still there when her husband was shot on 2 July, she returned to Washington and remained with him until his death on 19 September. As Americans read frequent updates on the president’s condition, they developed enormous respect for Lucretia Garfield’s devotion and considerable affection for the five Garfield children, ranging in age from nine to eighteen. After the president’s death, Americans sent in nearly $360,000 in contributions for the support of the family.
Mary Arthur McElroy, wife of an Albany, New York, minister and mother of four children, played the role of White House hostess for her widowed brother Chester Arthur from 1881 to 1885. But her own family responsibilities kept her in Albany most of the time, and she did not reside in the capital or spend much time there.
Rose Cleveland took leave from a teaching career in 1885 to assist her bachelor brother, Grover Cleveland, at the White House. She did not thrive on the social role, much preferring to concentrate on her literary interests, and she admitted that she found receiving lines so boring that she conjugated difficult Greek verbs to keep alert. When she published George Eliot’s Poetry, and Other Studies in 1885, newspapers congratulated her on “her first book” but generally preferred to report on her hostessing. After Grover Cleveland’s marriage in June 1886, Rose Cleveland resumed her own career.
In March 1897, Ida Saxton McKinley began her tenure as First Lady, but poor health impeded her public appearances. Her enfeebled public image was in direct contrast to the vivacious spirit she had shown in her youth. While growing up in Canton, Ohio, she had developed a reputation for independence, even taking a job in her father’s bank when such employment was uncommon for women. But after her marriage to William McKinley in 1871, the births of their two daughters, and the daughters’ deaths within a few years, she developed a series of maladies, including circulatory problems, which, along with epilepsy, rendered her virtually an invalid for the remainder of her life.
William McKinley was inordinately attentive to his wife’s needs and whims, developing a reputation of near saintliness. He stationed himself at her side during important dinners (which she rarely missed) so that he could assist her in the event that she suffered a seizure, and he interrupted important meetings to check on her well-being. In 1898, when the First Lady’s brother was murdered by a Canton, Ohio, dressmaker whom he had abandoned after a long liaison, the crime and subsequent trial made national headlines, although neither the president nor the First Lady appeared to give the matter much attention. They attended the funeral in Canton, then immediately resumed their official duties.
Predominantly Social Role with Political Implications
From the beginning of the Republic, the social role played by the president’s wife had political implications. Except for the most reclusive, each could have an impact. By extravagant spending or remarkable economy, by altering a guest list and focusing her pleasantries at parties, a First Lady had the power to help or hinder an administration. While some women used the opportunity to great advantage, thus increasing their husbands’ popularity and support, others made enemies.
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, with no precedents to guide her, originated customs that her successors would continue to observe. Although her role is not clear in the decision to combine the chief executive’s residence and office on one site, the arrangement required her cooperation because it drew the entire household into politics. Neither guest nor host could label a visit as entirely personal or nonpartisan. Martha Washington’s decision to give many parties and to open her home to all callers on New Year’s Day drew additional attention to her role. While she appeared to take no notice of nascent political rivalries (and approving Americans rewarded her with the title “Lady Washington”), her successors encountered more difficulty staying out of politics.
Dolley Payne Todd Madison expanded the social role, adding a more rigorous schedule. Even before becoming First Lady, she had some experience with the position—the widowed Thomas Jefferson had asked for her help at White House parties when his daughter could not be present to do the honors. After James Madison’s inauguration in 1809, Dolley’s charm and popularity proved an asset for the shy, retiring president. She curried favor with legislators’ wives by making social visits to all who came to the capital, thus serving as a kind of national Welcome Wagon. Exceptionally egalitarian in her parties, she opened the President’s House on Wednesday evenings to almost anyone inclined to call. All persons who had been introduced to the president (or knew someone who had) were invited to make an appearance.
Dolley Madison remained inscrutable about her preferences, except in her admiration for her husband, which was unquestionable. When James Madison dismissed Secretary of State Robert Smith in 1811, she invited Smith and his family to dinner, and when they failed to appear, she called on the family twice, Smith wrote, “with professions of great affection.” In James Madison’s 1812 bid for reelection, his wife used White House parties to attract support, and some historians have judged her contribution to the November victory as not inconsequential.
Dolley Madison played such a prominent role in running what was still sometimes called the President’s House that she cemented into public consciousness a close association between it and the First Lady. The Adamses had resided there only a few weeks, and Thomas Jefferson showed much less interest in it than in his beloved Monticello, so it was left to Dolley Madison to turn it into a showplace. With the help of Benjamin Latrobe, an architect, she furnished the State Dining Room and the suite of rooms on the south side of the first, or public, floor, later known as the Red, Green, and Blue Rooms. When the British troops attacked Washington in August 1814, she arranged for the most treasured possessions in the house, including the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that Congress had purchased in 1800, to be removed from the mansion and stored in a safe place. Even after the end of her husband’s presidency, Dolley Madison remained socially active and prominent up to her death in 1849.
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe did not share Dolley Madison’s egalitarian tastes, and her preference for privacy resulted in considerable criticism. A remarkably beautiful woman who retained a youthful appearance well into middle age, she was singled out both in France (where she accompanied her husband, James Monroe, when he served as minister there) and in Washington, D.C., for her stylish appearance. But she showed little interest in using First Ladyship to increase her husband’s popularity. She entertained much less than her popular predecessor and refused to make social calls on every legislator’s household. Washingtonians wrote her off as snobbish and unfriendly, and some of them boycotted the few parties she did give. When she insisted on inviting only close friends and family to the wedding of her daughter, Maria, in 1820 (the first marriage of a president’s child to take place in the White House), she made more enemies. Her long absences from the capital, explained as due either to her own illness or to visits to her married daughters, meant that the president entertained at bachelor parties for men only, leaving the wives of legislators (who had come to the capital expecting a lively social season) miffed to be left out.
Elizabeth Monroe’s one positive contribution to her husband’s presidency resulted from the particular timing that put the Monroes in the White House immediately following its rebuilding in 1817. Faced with the task of furnishing it, they decided to purchase the materials from France, although James Monroe played a larger part than his wife in the ordering. In the twentieth century, when attention turned to restoration and historic preservation, the Monroes were singled out for their elegant taste and their acquisition of what became the most prized possessions in the White House. Lou Hoover, who furnished rooms on the second floor with reproductions of the Monroes’ own furniture in 1932, named the suite for the Monroes.
Louisa Johnson Adams often complained about the heavy social obligations of any woman whose husband aspires to high political office, but she worked hard for John Quincy Adams’ success. While he served as secretary of state, she had been among the first women to attend congressional debates, sitting in the visitors’ gallery as important matters were discussed, and she worried that people watched her face for some indication of her husband’s opinions on matters of state: “Trifling occurrences are turned into political machinery,” she wrote. To enhance her husband’s popularity, she entertained large numbers of guests and made many calls on legislators’ families. She considered the visits particularly unpleasant and complained in her diary that she thought they would make her “crazy” but, heedful of her husband’s future, she persevered. “It is understood,” she wrote in her diary, “that a man who is ambitious to become President of the United States must make his wife visit the Ladies of the members of Congress first. Otherwise he is totally inefficient to fill so high an office.”
The only president’s wife to be born in Europe, Louisa Adams knew that some of her critics found her disagreeably foreign, but she won admirers for her charming and self-deprecating manner—a marked contrast to her husband’s temperament. Although well-educated and sophisticated, she lacked self-confidence, and when she wrote her autobiography for her children, she titled it “Adventures of a Nobody.” Although popular in the capital, she saw her duties as entirely social and ceremonial. As for any influence in legislation, she admitted, “I have never once been consulted.”
Sarah Childress Polk was singled out by contemporaries and later by historians for holding strong opinions of her own. Educated at one of the best girls’ academies in the South, she had married at nineteen, and during the time that James K. Polk served in the House of Representatives, she usually accompanied him to the capital. By the time he became president, she had many influential friends in Washington, both men and women. Just before the 1845 inauguration, Vice President-elect George Dallas wrote of her: “She is certainly mistress of herself and I suspect of somebody else also.”
Sarah Polk’s letters to her husband indicate that she understood the political controversies of the day and knew where she stood on them, but in line with traditions for women at the time, she did not comment publicly or campaign openly. While her husband was out looking for votes, she remained at home but wrote to inform him of the latest developments, explaining on one occasion that the Democrats’ stock had risen (“they are in exstacies [sic]”) while that of the Whigs had fallen. With so many of her husband’s potential supporters out of town, she complained, “I have not much to opperate [sic] on.”
In the White House, Sarah Polk used invitation lists to reward supporters and punish opponents, but she did not voice her opinions on controversial issues. In line with her strict religious observances, she permitted no music to be played on Sunday and attempted to get guests to accompany her to church services. James K. Polk’s biographer Charles Sellers concluded that she “became increasingly indispensable, as secretary, political counselor, nurse, and emotional resource” to her frail husband, but that her success in the capital was mainly social.
The tragic circumstances associated with Mary Todd Lincoln’s tenure limited her success as First Lady, although she began with rave reviews. National magazines described her costumes and parties in glowing terms, and one of them referred approvingly to the “perfectly molded shoulders” of the “Republican queen.”
The Civil War quickly complicated matters for Mary Lincoln. Many of her relatives had sided with the Confederacy, and several of them fought against Union troops. When Mary’s half brother was killed in battle, the Lincolns invited his widow to stay with them at the White House, thus feeding suspicions that Mary was a “traitor.” The often-repeated story that Abraham Lincoln was called on to defend his wife from such charges in front of a Senate committee is, however, now considered to be untrue.
Although she came from a Kentucky family of substantial means and had been acquainted with national political leaders (including Henry Clay) in her youth, Mary Lincoln showed great insecurity about presiding over the White House, and many people preyed on this weakness. On her way to her husband’s inauguration in 1861, she traveled by way of New York to order several new outfits, and her spending continued to grow in the following four years. She lavished large sums on herself as well as on the executive mansion, often without the knowledge or consent of her husband. Merchants extended credit, some of them perhaps hoping for favorable treatment from the president. When Abraham Lincoln was nominated for a second term in 1864, his wife’s relief was based partly on the fact that she would not immediately be called on to pay off her debts, then estimated to exceed the president’s annual salary.
People seeking access to the president flattered his wife, and his announcement that “women have no influence in this administration” did little to stop them. Observers noted that she frequently appealed to her husband for favors for others, and if he failed to comply, she would invite the supplicant to dine with the president so as to present the case in person.
Even after her husband’s death, Mary Lincoln continued to play a public role, and she became one of the most written about of all presidents’ wives. The assassination cast her in a martyr role, and she became preoccupied with the subject of money. Living in Europe apparently brought little satisfaction, and after her youngest son, Tad, died in 1871, she became increasingly despondent. In 1875, her one surviving child, Robert, arranged for a sanity hearing that resulted in her being confined briefly to a mental institution near Chicago. With the help of influential friends and a journalist, she plotted her way out a few months later.
Julia Dent Grant, First Lady during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, from 1869 to 1877, thrived on the social leadership role accorded the president’s wife in the capital. Her tenure coincided with the development of new interest in presidents’ families—partly because of the spread of new magazines aimed at a national audience, including women readers. In 1873, Godey’s Lady’s Book began a regular column on Washington under the authorship of the fictional “Aunt Mehitable,” who had purportedly accompanied her legislator son to the capital. Actually the writing of Harriet Hazelton, the column enlightened readers about social events, fashion trends, and even the condition of the teeth of some of Washington’s most prominent women. Aunt Mehitable made no secret of the fact that she found Julia Grant unattractive, and she pointed out that the First Lady was seen to best advantage in dim light, which concealed the fact that her eyes were crossed.
Julia Grant’s good nature and extravagant spending drew favorable attention to herself and the president. The Grants’ youngest son, Jesse, nine years old at the beginning of his father’s term, and daughter Ellen (“Nellie”), who was fourteen, both became very popular, and their mother did little to restrain public curiosity about them. When Nellie married in 1874, the White House wedding was the social event of the season. Julia Grant’s state dinners, consisting of as many as twenty-nine courses and several wines, also attracted praise.
After leaving the White House, Julia Grant decided to write her memoirs, possibly motivated by her husband’s success in writing his. Only about thirty pages of the book, which was not published until 1975, deal with the White House years, and these focus on the social and housekeeping aspects of being First Lady. The author did take credit for helping influence the president to veto “the all-important Finance Bill,” although her description of how this occurred makes clear that she had very little understanding of what the legislation involved. Her entertaining in the White House, where she invited friends without regard for the political implications, underlined her naïveté.
Lucy Webb Hayes’s tenure as First Lady marks a change in the role. The title “first lady” (as in “first lady of the land”) came into occasional use by the press in describing her activities. When she accompanied the president on his transcontinental trip in autumn 1880, she was greeted as a heroine. Part of her national prominence resulted from the approval of temperance advocates who were delighted with her ban on alcohol at White House parties. Rutherford B. Hayes apparently shares much of the responsibility for the temperance stand, but it was his wife, ridiculed as “Lemonade Lucy,” who took the blame. Her own opinion on the subject was apparently less fixed than was generally assumed. Her biographer Emily Apt Geer concluded that although Lucy Hayes did not drink, she held no strong views about the drinking habits of others. But her decision to endorse temperance evidently attracted favorable attention, and even in a time when virtually no women had the franchise, it won votes. Rutherford B. Hayes’s diary entry on 16 January 1881, just before leaving office, endorses that view of her political effectiveness.
Frances Folsom Cleveland, although a young bride when she first moved into the White House, showed other ways that a popular president’s wife could enhance his appeal. Only twenty-one when she married, she was the daughter of Oscar Folsom, who had been Grover Cleveland’s law partner in Buffalo before his accidental death in 1875. After graduating from Wells College in June 1885, Frances Folsom had spent a year touring Europe with her mother. Her marriage to the forty-eight-year-old president early in his first term was evidently arranged before the trip but kept a secret until the Folsoms returned to New York in late May 1886.
The wedding ceremony on 2 June 1886 in the Blue Room of the White House (the first such ceremony for a sitting president) introduced Americans to a young First Lady whom they would make very popular. Frances Cleveland is usually rated just behind Dolley Madison as the most liked of all nineteenth-century presidents’ wives. Her youth and seriousness, her practical down-to-earth approach to White House living, endeared her to many Americans who imitated her in various ways. Women wore their hair à la Frances, twisted in a bun at the nape of the neck, and advertisers incorporated her image in their commercials.
The president’s marriage to a young woman of such wholesome, winning ways helped his reputation in some quarters, causing one historian to call it “a master political stroke.” Grover Cleveland’s relationship with a Buffalo widow, whose child he supported, had become common knowledge in the 1884 campaign and had somewhat tainted his reputation. Aside from that story, his rounded figure and rather lethargic appearance did not make for good copy at a time when news about the presidential household was more and more sought out. Before the end of Grover Cleveland’s second term, Frances had given birth to three daughters, who helped establish his image as a devoted family man.
In the summer of 1893, Frances Cleveland assisted her husband in keeping the press from reporting that the president had undergone cancer surgery. Grover Cleveland had been diagnosed with a malignancy in his mouth in May, but he did not want to reveal his condition because of fears that an ailing president might negatively affect the nation’s economy. Arrangements were made to operate in secret. On 30 June, the Clevelands left Washington by train, ostensibly en route to their summer home in Buzzards’ Bay, Massachusetts. Somewhere along the way, the president left the train and boarded a yacht that had been fitted out like an operating room. While he underwent surgery, his wife, who was seven months pregnant at the time, proceeded northward with their two-year-old daughter, Ruth.
On 4 July, when the president had not yet arrived in Massachusetts, reporters questioned the First Lady, who asked them not to write about his absence—she assured them that President Cleveland would appear shortly. Except for one account (published at the time and immediately denounced as false) the story of what really happened did not appear until 1917, when one of the attending surgeons wrote about it for the Saturday Evening Post.
Caroline Scott Harrison, whose single term as First Lady fell between the two terms of Frances Cleveland, also became a national figure, and although she attempted to keep her job entirely social, it spilled over into matters affecting the president, Benjamin Harrison. Her most publicized effort involved a plan to enlarge the executive mansion, which she deemed too small to accommodate the extended family that accompanied the Harrisons to Washington.
Presidents’ families had repeatedly complained of their cramped living quarters, and Caroline Harrison resolved to make a large addition to the White House. Working with architect Frederick Owen, who drew up the plans, she suggested constructing new wings to form a quadrangle, with separate areas for the residence and a museum. Although there appeared to be considerable enthusiasm for the project (and the Senate passed the necessary legislation), it fared less well in the House of Representatives, where the Speaker, angry with the president over an appointment, failed to bring it to the floor.
Had she succeeded in overseeing major alterations at the White House, Caroline Harrison might have become better known for her other efforts. An accomplished artist, she publicized American themes in a White House china pattern featuring a cornstalkand-flowers border and in her own clothing. Widely respected for her efficient management of the presidential household, she was singled out as a model wife. Her death in the White House on 25 October 1892, just days before her husband failed in his bid for reelection, added a somber final note to her husband’s one-term administration.
Edith Carow Roosevelt’s nearly eight years as First Lady marked an institutionalization of the role. Women who preceded her in the job had relied on relatives and friends to assist them in their entertaining and correspondence, and often in their decorating, but Edith Roosevelt preferred hired help. She arranged for Isabella Hagner, formerly secretary to one of Theodore Roosevelt’s sisters, to be transferred from the War Department, where she worked as a clerk, to the White House. Operating from a desk on the second floor of the residence, Hagner acted as the First Lady’s staff, preparing news releases including information about dinner guests, the president’s family, and the First Lady’s wardrobe.
More interested in literature than in politics, Edith Roosevelt apparently played little part in discussions of substantive matters affecting the nation. Her impact on the day-to-day running of the White House was, however, enormous. She had a well-earned reputation for economy and the self-confidence to put her ideas into practice. In the extensive 1902 renovation of the White House, she worked with the architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White to reallocate space so that the family had more comfortable quarters. Musicales, featuring performances for small groups of invited guests, had occasionally been scheduled by other First Ladies, but Edith Roosevelt was the first to make them a regular part of the president’s entertaining. To help her make choices from among the many artists who sought to perform at the White House, she enlisted the help of Steinway and Sons, the New York piano manufacturers, who provided a consultant.
Although mother of five children (and stepmother to Alice, Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter with his first wife, Alice Lee of Boston), Edith Roosevelt maintained a detached demeanor that won her many admirers. She gave no speeches in support of her husband’s candidacies, but broke her long silence when she consented to address a large Madison Square Garden rally in 1932. Her subject was Herbert Hoover—and why he would make a better president than his Democratic opponent, Franklin D. Roosevelt, husband of Theodore Roosevelt’s niece Eleanor.
Helen Herron Taft is often credited with having had a large role in her husband’s political career. William Howard Taft’s acceptance of an appointment to head a commission to the Philippines in 1900 was based partly on her enthusiasm for travel. “It was an invitation from the big world,” she later wrote, “and I was willing to accept it at once and investigate its possible complications afterwards.” When the couple returned to Washington so that William Howard Taft could enter the cabinet as secretary of war in 1904, Helen appeared set on his becoming president. She had been a guest of the Rutherford B. Hayes family when she was a young girl, she later explained, and she had determined then that she would one day preside over the White House. When President Theodore Roosevelt appeared ready to name her husband to the Supreme Court in 1906, Helen Taft scheduled an appointment with him to express her own views. Although she left no account of that meeting, President Roosevelt’s letter to William Howard Taft leaves little doubt about her impact: After “a half hour’s talk with your dear wife,” he wrote, he had decided against appointing Taft to the Court.
During the 1908 presidential election, Helen Taft was often described as intelligent and forceful, predictably an influence on her husband. She lent credence to such claims with her own announcement that she did not like to be shunted off to lunch with a group of uninteresting women while her husband talked over important matters with other men. After the inauguration, she managed to ride to the White House beside the president, a spot previously reserved for the outgoing chief executive or some other prominent man.
Helen Taft’s physical collapse due to a stroke two months after the inauguration curtailed reports of her power and influence. She retired to the Tafts’ vacation home in Massachusetts for the summer to recuperate. By October 1909 she was back in the White House, but she kept a low public profile and was often absent on important occasions. The Tafts’ one daughter, Helen, and the First Lady’s sister helped in White House management and in the social schedule. Helen Taft’s main impact on Washington was cosmetic. She arranged for the shipment and planting of several thousand cherry trees along the Potomac.
Immediately after leaving the White House, Helen Taft began writing her autobiography, which was published in 1914. Recollections of Full Years thus became the first autobiography of a First Lady to be published (Julia Grant had written hers earlier but it was not yet in print). Only a fraction of Helen Taft’s book dealt with the White House years, and that focuses entirely on the social aspects of the role.
Ellen Axson Wilson, although First Lady for only seventeen months, explored new ways that a president’s wife could leave her mark on her husband’s administration. As a young woman she had studied art in New York City, and during the time her husband was president of Princeton University and then governor of New Jersey she exhibited her paintings, sometimes signing them “E. Wilson” in order to play down her relationship with Woodrow. But rather than concentrating on art projects while in the White House in 1913 and 1914, she turned to housing reform, an interest that had survived since her student days when she had taught in a missionary school in New York. She arranged for housing reformers to meet with legislators at receptions, and she made cars available for touring slums located only a few blocks from the White House. Her efforts helped generate interest in housing reform, resulting in legislation, sometimes called the Ellen Wilson Alley Housing Bill, passed by the Senate just hours before she died on 6 August 1914. The House of Representatives quickly followed suit. Although a lack of funding crippled the law’s effects, this marked the first time that a president’s wife had been so prominently connected to legislation.
The potential for a woman to participate in her husband’s administration was not lost on Florence Kling Harding. She had assisted Warren G. Harding in running his Marion, Ohio, newspaper, and she evidently saw no reason to play a lesser part in his political career. She involved herself in the 1920 campaign, overturning, for example, a decision to reply to rumors that her husband had black ancestry. But her impact on policy matters while First Lady is difficult to assess, partly because she destroyed so many of the papers that would have helped define it. Staff credited her with helping to shape wording of the president’s speeches and with vetoing a plan that would have provided an official residence for the vice president, but she herself claimed her role was little more than social and ceremonial. She had a good relationship with the press, and she occasionally scheduled meetings of her own with women journalists.
Ill with a kidney disease for much of her adult life, Florence Harding made a special point of looking strong and healthy. The “Duchess,” as her husband called her, enthusiastically greeted tourists who passed through the executive mansion, and whenever she was too sick to appear in public, as happened frequently, she attributed the indisposition to food poisoning. In the end, her attempt to manage the press worked against her. Americans were as unprepared for her death on 21 November 1924 as they had been for her husband’s nearly sixteen months earlier.
Grace Goodhue Coolidge, the first president’s wife to have earned a university degree, made a point of staying out of politics. She insisted that she did not know the details of her husband’s daily schedule or of his decision not to run for a second term in 1928 until she was informed along with the rest of the nation. Her influence was almost entirely one of image—not inconsequential for a less-than-personable, laconic president. Charming and witty, she made self-deprecating comments about herself that won many admirers, and her fondness for animals and small children was legendary. She was frequently photographed with one of her many pets—including a raccoon named Rebecca and a collie, Rob Roy. Her courageous response to the grief that engulfed both her and the president after their younger son, Calvin Coolidge, Jr., died in the summer of 1924 further endeared her to Americans.
Grace Coolidge’s attempt to change substantially the furnishings of the White House failed. Following her husband’s election to a full term in 1924, she formed an advisory committee composed of experts and connoisseurs, some of whom had just completed an exhibit of American furniture at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She appealed to Congress for an increased allotment and for permission to accept donations of period furniture and art. When controversy developed about the appropriate style for the refurbishing, the plan was dropped, but Grace Coolidge’s example prepared the way for other First Ladies, including Jacqueline Kennedy.
Lou Henry Hoover came to the White House with a full understanding of the major issues of the day, but she played the role of First Lady much as it had been played earlier. She neither campaigned for her husband nor gave interviews that revealed any differences between herself and the president. When she gave talks on radio—the first president’s wife to do so—she limited herself to topics that reinforced her husband’s voluntary approach to solving the problems of the Great Depression. Her efforts to catalog White House furnishings, with the help of friends and volunteers, did not result in a publication, although attention was called to a long-felt need.
Considerable controversy surrounded Lou Hoover’s decision to invite Jessie DePriest, wife of African-American congressman Oscar DePriest of Chicago, to a tea for legislators’ wives. One southern newspaper editorialized that the First Lady had “defiled the White House”; another suggested that she had offered the nation “an arrogant insult.” In other quarters, the incident underlined the First Lady’s reputation for egalitarianism.
Opinion is divided on Lou Hoover’s impact on her husband’s appointments. But in a single term, Herbert Hoover named seven women to jobs requiring Senate approval, bringing the total to more than double what it had been in 1920. She was an enthusiastic supporter of noncompetitive sports for women and of the Girl Scouts. First Ladies had traditionally served as figurehead leader of the Girl Scouts, but she worked hard at the job, helping to raise funds and encouraging membership. Her large personal fortune made possible her support of many ordinary people with hardship cases who asked for her help during the Great Depression, although she refused to publicize her generosity. The largesse continued after she left the White House, and when she died in 1944, her husband was surprised to receive many letters from people he was unacquainted with, wanting to know why their checks had stopped.
Elizabeth (“Bess”) Wallace Truman followed a precedent-breaking First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, into the White House in 1945, but she played the part her own way. While her husband served as U.S. senator and vice president, she remained virtually unknown in Washington. Her unusually adamant insistence on privacy, later explained by her daughter Margaret as originating in the suicide of David Wallace, Bess’s father, when she was eighteen, made her wary of reporters, and she declined to give interviews as First Lady; after finally consenting to answer reporters’ questions in writing in 1947, she relied on “no comment” for nearly a third of the thirty questions submitted.
Bess Truman refused to comment on matters of public policy, and her impact remains unclear. Harry Truman credited her many times, saying that she had been his “full partner in all my transactions, political and otherwise.” He told reporters that he consulted her on important decisions, including use of the atomic bomb, the Marshall Plan, and Korea, because “her judgment was always good.” Staff members concurred that he frequently brought a briefcase to the residence part of the White House and went over the contents with his wife. His letters to her, at least those that have been published in Dear Bess: The Letters from Harry to Bess Truman, 1910-1959, frequently seek her advice. Much of the correspondence between the Trumans is unavailable, however, because Bess burned it. Their daughter Margaret wrote after her parents’ deaths that her mother often felt shut out of important decisions in the White House.
The one time that Bess Truman made a public statement about a controversial subject involved repairing the White House in 1949 after severe structural problems were discovered. Bess Truman urged retaining the historical value of the original structure rather than demolishing it and building a new residence in its place, an option that would have been less costly. During the extensive renovation the Trumans lived at the Blair House, and when they returned to the White House in early 1952 she left it to the president to conduct a televised tour of the premises. She confined her own appearances to the ceremonial: dedicating hospital planes, posing with poster children, and greeting wounded servicemen.
Mamie Doud Eisenhower, the last First Lady born in the nineteenth century, left the job a ceremonial, social one as she had found it. Many years as wife of a military leader and university president had trained her to be an efficient household manager, and she thrived on the hostessing role. Her press conference in early March 1953 featured a list of her social engagements or, as one reporter summarized it, “tea by inexorable tea.” When she published an article in a women’s magazine during the 1952 campaign, she took an entirely neutral stand: “Vote for My Husband or for Governor Stevenson,” she titled the article, “But Please Vote.”
Much about Mamie Eisenhower’s style appealed to Americans. She invited popular performers such as Fred Waring to the White House, and she insisted that she and the president often ate their dinners from TV trays, just as millions of her countrymen were doing. Her popular hairstyle, breezy attitude, and recipe for fudge made her first name a household word. Dwight Eisenhower credited her “unaffected manner” with making the White House “livable and comfortable, and meaningful for the people who came in.”
First Ladies with Strong Impact on Their Husbands’ Presidencies
The presidential campaign of 1960 is generally seen as a turning point in the history of First Ladies. Those who served after that date played a larger, more significant role in getting their husbands elected and in making their administrations successful. In spite of considerable variation in their clout, all were rated for their value to their husbands’ programs, and each was written about in her own right.
Part of the change resulted from timing and from developments entirely outside the First Ladies’ control. All were born in the twentieth century, and most had attended college and at one time held jobs of their own. Expanding television coverage, pulling a candidate’s entire family into the public eye, focused on their wives. American women, increasingly aware of political solutions for problems they faced in their homes and on their jobs, looked to the president’s wife for an example and for help.
The opportunity for a forceful First Lady to involve herself in policy had been present from the beginning of the Republic. The Constitution left a president free to choose advisers at will, without the constraints of a parliamentary system that tied a leader tightly to a party. Chief executives rarely admitted to relying on the counsel of their wives, however, and since much of the communication between presidents and First Ladies was personal and private, it is impossible to assess precisely what role each woman played. By the late twentieth century, accounts were more plentiful. Presidents’ wives often wrote books to tell their own life stories; staff members revealed what they observed about the First Family; and reporters covered the entire White House entourage in detail.
Abigail Smith Adams’ tenure as First Lady showed very early how a determined woman could, with her husband’s concurrence, exert influence in his administration. John Adams had first been attracted to her by her wit, and during their marriage she often managed family and business matters on her own in her husband’s frequent absences. During his eight years as vice president, she observed the careful impartiality and general affability of Martha Washington, and the two women often appeared together on social occasions, but Abigail Adams had her own views about women’s roles.
John Adams’ presidency, marked increasingly by factionalism, gave his wife the chance to vent her own opinions, if only in letters to relatives and friends and in private conversations. Other people guessed at what she thought—they called her “Mrs. President.” Visitors to the President’s House reported that she took sides, naming some legislators as “our people” and others as foes. The nearly two thousand of her letters that survive record her views: Albert Gallatin was “sly, artful”; in Alexander Hamilton’s eyes she saw “the very devil … itself.” John Adams’ letters underline her role in his administration. After he had made an unpopular appointment while she was in Massachusetts, he wrote to tell her that many people lamented her absence, and called her “a good counsellor.” Even though her own illnesses and that of relatives required her to be separated from her husband during much of his presidency, she is generally credited as an important adviser.
As the first occupants of the President’s House in the Federal City (yet to be named Washington), the Adamses had a chance to set some precedents that would guide chief executives and their spouses for two centuries. Because her residence lasted only a few weeks, Abigail Adams did not have time to furnish the mansion, even if the plaster had dried, but she transferred some of the customs that had already developed in temporary housing. She opened the residence on New Year’s Day to all who wanted to call, a tradition that continued (except during illness or national disaster) until 1932. The party on 1 January 1801 featured the eight-member United States Marine Band, thus associating that ensemble with the president in a special way.
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson is often credited with changing the role of First Lady, although her interest in politics was limited. Before her marriage to Woodrow Wilson on 18 December 1915, she had paid little attention to government, and she confessed that in the 1912 presidential election she could not have even named the candidates. Yet the unusual circumstances that surrounded her tenure pushed her into prominence and gained her an undeserved reputation as one of the most influential of all presidents’ wives. During her first years in the White House, she and the president spent a great deal of time together, and she often sat near him as he wrote his speeches or deciphered coded messages. When he traveled to Europe for the talks that ended World War I, she accompanied him, and during a tour of Italy and England she gained considerable admiring attention and was often compared to European queens.
After Woodrow Wilson suffered a devastating stroke in the fall of 1919, Edith Wilson’s role changed from romantic companion to diligent nurse. She screened his mail and monitored his visitors and workload, and except for his doctor and trusted secretary, few callers got past her. Rumors circulated that she was taking charge; she was described by a White House employee as an “assistant president,” and by a prominent senator as presiding over a “petticoat government.”
Evidence that Edith Wilson made important decisions is lacking. She insisted that she only looked out for her husband’s well-being, and the facts support her claim. During several major crises throughout the winter of 1919-1920, including the deportation of aliens, a miners’ strike, and a steel strike, the White House took little part. Historians have generally concluded that Edith Wilson had neither the ability nor the interest to play a strong political role, but her tenure illustrated the potential for a spouse to control access to the president during a period when he was ill or incapacitated.
Even before she moved into the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt had developed an agenda of her own. Politics was not an unexplored topic in her family (Theodore Roosevelt was her father’s only brother), and she had served an apprenticeship of her own, beginning about 1918 when she started doing volunteer work with the Red Cross and meeting women social reformers. After her husband was paralyzed by polio in 1921, she attempted to keep his political future alive by learning to speak in public so that she could represent him. In 1924 she headed a women’s delegation that tried unsuccessfully to reach the Resolutions Committee at the Democratic National Convention and present proposals for a long list of reforms, including equal pay for women workers, regulation of child labor, and improvement of education and working conditions. She campaigned for Al Smith, the Democratic nominee, in 1928 and began publishing magazine articles under her own name.
By 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt’s political resources were considerable. She had a large network of competent people who could advise her and accept appointments to high-level jobs. Her husband’s physical limitations provided her almost unlimited license to travel in his place, and she frequently said she served as “his eyes and ears.” The emotional separation between her and the president, often attributed to his romantic attachment to another woman during World War I, apparently freed her to concentrate on her own projects and goals.
Within days of becoming First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt indicated that she would take a fresh approach to the job. She invited women reporters to go on a tour of the White House and agreed to meet with them regularly every week. After announcing that she would not touch controversial issues, she soon broke her own rules, causing news agencies to pay more attention to the meetings. She eventually held 348 press conferences, the last just hours before the president’s death, and until World War II the conferences were limited to women. News agencies that did not want to miss an important announcement from the presidential household had to hire a woman reporter, and one of them, Ruby Black, thanked the First Lady for getting her a job with United Press.
Although abundant evidence points to Eleanor Roosevelt’s large role in New Deal legislation, she played down the amount of power she exercised. At one news conference she announced that she had “never tried to influence” the president “on anything he ever did” and, she continued, “I certainly have never known him to try to influence me.” When one man publicly credited her with getting him a job, she objected, saying he had put her in an “embarrassing position.”
Her own writings and those of her friends point to her impact. In 1941, Raymond Clapper, a well-known syndicated columnist, named her as one of the ten most powerful people in Washington, playing the part of “cabinet minister without portfolio.” Her influence was particularly evident in the formation of the National Youth Administration, in housing reform, and in increasing opportunities for women and minorities. Her letters contain many references to meetings with legislators and agency heads, and in 1942 she testified before a congressional committee, the first president’s wife to do so.
Eleanor Roosevelt provided access to government for people who had previously felt deprived. Molley Dewson, chair of the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee, credited the First Lady with making it possible for her to discuss important matters with the president. Her papers at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, New York, contain many letters from people appealing to her for help—evidence that they thought she could deliver.
The First Lady traveled, both in the United States and abroad, far more than any president’s wife before her. None of her predecessors had journeyed abroad on their own when Eleanor Roosevelt decided to go to Great Britain in 1942 to visit army camps, factories, nurseries, and other sites associated with the war. The following year she went to the South Pacific. Her countless trips to Appalachia and to other problem areas of the United States were billed as “fact finding,” and they took her to improbable places: into mines, schools, and the dilapidated dwellings of impoverished families.
Eleanor Roosevelt is widely believed to have been more liberal than her husband on many subjects and to have attracted support from quarters where he had less appeal. Her stand on civil rights, especially following her resignation from membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution after that organization barred Marian Anderson, the African-American singer, from performing in its auditorium in 1939, secured her reputation in many quarters. Eleanor Roosevelt made friends with young people, including members of the American Student Union and the American Youth Congress, and she spoke up in their defense. Women’s groups also looked to her for leadership, and although she neither joined the Woman’s Party nor defended the Equal Rights Amendment as First Lady, she championed the right of married women to work, a right threatened by the Economy Act of 1933.
Although she had a very small staff, Eleanor Roosevelt kept a hectic schedule. Her syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” began appearing in 1936, and she gave hundreds of speeches. The money earned was dedicated to various charities and friends because, although she liked earning money, she spent little on herself and preferred seeing it “in circulation.”
After her husband’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt remained a strong political force. President Truman nominated her as a United States delegate to the United Nations, where she helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. She campaigned for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed her to chair the Commission on the Status of Women, but her health had already begun to fail and she died on 7 November 1962, having lived the final years of her life as “First Lady of the World.”
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy understood the value a popular First Lady could have for her husband’s administration, but she did not involve herself in public policy questions. Thirty-one years old at the time of her husband’s inauguration, she was the youngest First Lady since Frances Cleveland (1886), and she augmented the attention focused on her by projecting a glamorous image involving designer clothes, expensive jewelry, and a preference “for the best” in food and entertainment. Her savvy in arts and design, her ability in languages, and her extensive travel abroad made her an immensely appealing First Lady, and she was widely imitated.
Ambivalent about a public role (she relished her own privacy and insisted that her two young children be protected from excessive media exposure), Jacqueline Kennedy appointed her own press secretary (the first president’s wife to do so) but then encouraged the president’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to keep reporters away from her and her children.
Besides her glamorous image, Jacqueline Kennedy’s strongest legacy was the White House restoration. In 1961 she arranged for a curator to come on loan from the Smithsonian Institution to begin the lengthy process of cataloging the contents of the White House, and she appealed to Congress to pass legislation making the contents of the executive mansion public property so that occupants could not sell or dispose of furnishings “of historic or artistic interest.” To restore the mansion to its early-nineteenth-century elegance, she helped form the White House Historical Association, a “not-for-profit historical and educational organization” to “enhance understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the White House.” The sale of guidebooks to finance restoration began on 4 July 1962, and although some critics charged that sales on the premises cheapened the White House, the initial printing of 250,000 copies sold out in a few weeks. When the First Lady showed off the results of the White House refurbishing in a televised tour on 14 February 1962, more than 46 million Americans watched, and interest in the president’s residence grew.
After President Kennedy’s assassination, his widow helped plan a dramatic funeral, with many of the elements drawn from Abraham Lincoln’s. A few days after the interment she summoned Theodore H. White to her Massachusetts home to discuss her own views on the Kennedy administration and how it should be remembered. It was this interview, described in a two-page Life magazine article by White on 6 December 1963, that pinned the tag “Camelot” on the Kennedy administration.
Claudia (“Lady Bird”) Taylor Johnson called Jacqueline Kennedy a “daunting” act to follow, but she went ahead to make her own mark on the job of First Lady. Her long residence in Washington, beginning with her marriage in 1934, acquainted her with political workings on the national level and she built her own network of powerful friends. Although she had not wanted her husband to accept the nomination for vice president in 1960, she went out to speak in support of the national ticket that year, causing Robert Kennedy, campaign manager for his brother, to pronounce her a major asset. During the Kennedy presidency, Lady Bird Johnson often filled in for the First Lady when she could not, or chose not to, appear at ceremonies.
As First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson named a large, competent staff, headed by Liz Carpenter, a veteran reporter. Although the number of employees was generally about two dozen, the largest any president’s wife had named up to that time, additional people came on loan from other agencies and departments to assist in the First Lady’s projects and scheduling. Her understanding of reporters’ needs (journalism had been one of her majors at the University of Texas) helped her develop a good relationship with members of the press.
In 1964, Lady Bird Johnson campaigned for her husband on her own—the first candidate’s wife to do so in such a visible way. Vowing not to write off support in the southern states, where enthusiasm for Lyndon Johnson was weak, she traveled from Washington to Louisiana on a train, dubbed the “Lady Bird Special.” Accompanied by staff, advisers, and, for part of the trip, her daughters, she gave speeches along the way urging people to vote for her husband.
After 1965, Lady Bird Johnson staked out a leading role for herself in the Great Society initiatives, taking an important part in Head Start, a program designed to assist preschool children. Her closest identification, however, was with “beautification.” Although the latter suffered from its unfortunate name (which even Mrs. Johnson deemed unsuitable but acknowledged that “we couldn’t come up with anything better”) and was often denigrated as simply “prettification,” it touched on much broader environmental concerns: the upkeep of Washington’s monuments and streets, the involvement of Washington residents in neighborhood improvement, a campaign to attract national attention to the value of natural resources, and the struggle to regulate billboards along highways.
While the success of these efforts relied principally on Lady Bird Johnson’s ability to attract favorable attention and raise funds from private sources, the last involved national legislation and provoked considerable controversy, particularly after the powerful billboard lobby made its views known. The Highway Beautification Act (sometimes called “Lady Bird’s Bill”), passed in October 1965, marked an unprecedented use of the First Lady’s implicit power. But the law was seriously weakened during the compromising necessary to passage, and neither she nor the president was very satisfied with the results.
Although Lady Bird Johnson did not take an active part in the burgeoning feminist movement, she developed her own program to recognize the accomplishments of outstanding women and, at the same time, call attention to significant topics at “women-doer” luncheons. Of the nineteen that she eventually hosted, each of them focusing on a single subject, the most publicized was held on 18 January 1968, on street crime. Among the guests was singer Eartha Kitt, who, after listening to the remarks of the First Lady and several others present, expressed her own view that it was not surprising that young people were turning to marijuana and crime when so many of them faced the prospect of being drafted to fight, and perhaps die, in Vietnam. The First Lady later recorded in her diary how important she knew her response would be. She tried to remain calm and dignified as she spoke about her feelings: she hoped that the war would end soon, but while it continued, “that still doesn’t give us a free ticket not to try to work for better things—against crime in the streets, and for better education and better health for our people.” The incident, widely reported by journalists who were present, illustrated how easily the First Lady could be drawn into important, controversial matters.
The exact role of Lady Bird Johnson in her husband’s presidency cannot be fully detailed until all her papers are open and examined. Perhaps not even then. Her own record of her White House years, published in 1970 and titled A White House Diary, includes only a fraction of the notes that she made while First Lady. Her biographer Lewis L. Gould concluded that all available evidence indicates that she played a significant part in key decisions and that she altered the institution of First Lady by going beyond what any of her predecessors had done in working for legislation. Other historians have generally rated her a substantial asset to the Johnson presidency.
Patricia (“Pat”) Ryan Nixon also brought a long Washington apprenticeship to the White House, but she used it in her own particular way. Although she maintained a busy schedule and took on several projects, she showed little interest in claiming credit for her accomplishments, and the president’s staff placed low value on her contribution. Journalists saw her as programmed and distant, but she gained enormous popularity with Americans, who named her to Good Housekeeping‘s list of “Most Admired Women’ every year she was in the White House and for nearly two decades after leaving it.
In her effort to open up the White House “to the little guys,” Pat Nixon made special arrangements: persons in wheelchairs and on crutches received extra assistance; blind people were permitted to touch objects; busloads of senior citizens ate Thanksgiving dinner in the State Dining Room. But Pat also traveled to meet people, even those who lived in remote places and were not yet old enough to vote. Her daughter Julie later estimated that Pat had traveled more than any First Lady up to that time, visiting eighty-three nations and criss-crossing North America many times. She persevered whatever the weather, explaining, “I do or I die. I never cancel out.”
Although she was overshadowed by the glamour and publicity that had been associated with Jacqueline Kennedy, Pat Nixon worked effectively to gather antiques and artwork for the White House collection. With the assistance of White House curator Clement Conger, who had presided over the refurbishing of the reception rooms at the State Department, she acquired more antique furnishings for the mansion than had been given during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations combined.
Pat Nixon’s insistence on privacy gave little opportunity for the public to know what she had done or how she felt on important issues. Frequent staff changes (she named three different press secretaries in just over five years) limited her impact, and when asked to write a syndicated column, she refused, saying, I know a lot but you have to keep it to yourself when you’re in this position.” Her daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who published a book, Pat Nixon: The Untold Story (1986), insisted that her parents were closer than people thought, but she could offer only one instance in which the First Lady tried to influence an important appointment—she hoped that a woman would be named to the Supreme Court.
Betty Bloomer Ford assumed the job of First Lady without the benefit of a national campaign and at a time when the Watergate hearings had diminished public respect for government officials. She frequently said that she had a special responsibility to be candid and honest. At her first press conference, held on 4 September 1974, she admitted that she sometimes disagreed with her husband on important issues and described her position on abortion as much closer to that of Nelson Rockefeller, who supported the Supreme Court’s decision leaving the matter for a woman and her physician to decide, than that of Senator James Buckley of New York, who had publicly disagreed with the Court’s stand. Her independence (she later admitted she was often tempted to split her ticket when she voted) is generally credited with increasing her husband’s popularity in some quarters, and it accounted for campaign buttons in 1976 plugging “Betty’s Husband for President.”
From the beginning of her tenure as First Lady, Betty Ford announced that she would work for substantive changes, including ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. She had a separate telephone installed in the White House so that she could lobby state legislators scheduled to vote on the measure. Opponents of the amendment criticized the involvement of a president’s wife in such a controversial issue, especially one then before the states, but Betty Ford insisted she would stick with the fight. And she did, although she had to admit defeat when the necessary number of states did not ratify during her term.
Both Gerald and Betty Ford spoke of her influence in his administration. She admitted using “pillow talk” to relay her views on important topics, including the nomination of women to important jobs, and he acknowledged that she had urged him to grant a pardon to Richard Nixon.
Much of Betty Ford’s popularity resulted from her candor in dealing with personal problems that other presidential families had hidden. She talked publicly about her sons’ possible experimentation with marijuana, her teenage daughter’s sex life, and her own use of tranquilizers. (Her frank statement about her alcoholism and her establishment of the Betty Ford Center came after the White House years ended.) In September 1974, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she permitted the White House to release all the details to the press. Television programs and magazines featured discussions on radical mastectomies and more limited surgery, on chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Previously almost unmentionable, breast cancer became a household word, and many women were persuaded to seek examinations. Although some criticism charged that the discussions were inappropriate, the First Lady concentrated on the good she had done. “Lying in the hospital, thinking of all those women going for cancer checkups because of me, I’d come to recognize more clearly the power of the woman in the White House.”
Rosalynn Smith Carter claimed title to “full partner” throughout her marriage, even in the White House. She had assisted in the Carter family business by keeping the books, and when her husband James Earl (“Jimmy”) Carter ran for governor of Georgia in 1966 she went out on the campaign trail (although her fear of making public speeches kept her from anything more than photo opportunity appearances beside the family car). Later, she perfected her speaking skills and grew adept at campaigning so that when her husband began his quest for his party’s nomination for president in early 1975, she felt confident about traveling and speaking on her own. She often explained that they could cover more territory if each worked alone.
As First Lady, Rosalynn Carter frequently stood in for the president on ceremonial occasions, and she developed her own abbreviation (BOE for “bottom of the elevator”) for the many trips she made to the first floor of the White House to have her picture taken with one delegation or another. But she emphasized the substantive rather than the social and ceremonial parts of the job. She kept an office in the East Wing (where she was sometimes photographed busy at her desk), and she scheduled a working lunch with the president once a week. When subjects that interested her were the focus of cabinet discussion, she joined cabinet members, sitting in “whatever seat was available,” she later said, even if it happened to be the one normally occupied by the vice president. She was the first president’s wife to attend cabinet meetings.
In a precedent-breaking trip, Rosalynn Carter journeyed to seven countries in the Caribbean and South America in spring 1977 to confer with leaders on what the White House billed “substantive matters.” After preparing by meeting with members of the State Department and the National Security Council, she talked with leaders about trade and defense. When she returned to Washington she reported to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on what she had seen and heard. Critics questioned the authority under which she traveled since she was neither appointed nor elected, and some Latino leaders expressed uncertainty about how to treat her remarks. Whether she was responding to the criticism or not, Rosalynn Carter made no more trips of this kind, explaining that her husband had time to “go himself.” But she continued with goodwill missions that were more in line with what other First Ladies had done.
Rosalynn Carter had become interested in mental health care reform during the years that her husband served as governor of Georgia, and she continued her efforts as First Lady. As honorary chair of the President’s Council on Mental Health, she spoke on the subject in the United States, Canada, and Europe. In February 1979 she went before the Senate Resource Subcommittee to promote mental health programs, thus becoming the first president’s wife to testify before a congressional committee since Eleanor Roosevelt.
When President Carter invited Anwar as-Sadat and Menachem Begin to Camp David in September 1978, he asked that Rosalynn and the wives of the other two leaders also be present, saying the negotiations would be more congenial “if all of you are there.” Rosalynn Carter’s notes on those twelve days later became the basis of one chapter in her autobiography, First Lady from Plains(1984), and critics judged it a particularly valuable insight into the Camp David meeting.
Historians have generally rated Rosalynn Carter as an especially effective First Lady, a major asset to her husband’s administration. She weathered some criticism for doing what no president’s wife had done before, but she emerged as one of a handful of twentieth-century First Ladies judged more successful in their roles than their husbands in the presidency.
Nancy Davis Reagan was not always candid about her impact as First Lady, although it was, by many accounts, substantial. Some associates noted that she had very savvy political instincts and held strong views on the people who worked with her husband. Apparently uninterested in a political base of her own, she took strong exception to those people she deemed harmful to her husband’s success and was generally thought to play a major role in the removal of several cabinet and staff members, including Chief of Staff Donald Regan. After he left the job, Regan endorsed that view and added that she had made scheduling of the president difficult by relying on a California astrologist for advice about when Ronald Reagan should travel and attend important meetings. Rather than refuting this charge, Nancy Reagan explained that her fears for her husband’s safety, especially after the assassination attempt on him in March 1981, had made her look for help wherever she could find it.
As wife of the governor of California, Nancy Reagan had worked with the Foster Grandparents Program, and as First Lady she published a book on the subject. But her chic image did not seem grand-motherly to many Americans, and the program was not popular. Her ratings dipped in 1981, partly because of what appeared to some people as extravagant spending on the White House and on herself. The timing of a White House announcement on the purchase of nearly $210,000 worth of new china (although paid for by private donations) was particularly unfortunate since it coincided with revelations about cuts in social programs.
At a meeting in late 1981, involving her staff and the president’s, a plan was devised to improve Nancy Reagan’s image, and she embarked on an antidrug crusade, later billed as “Just Say No.” The First Lady insisted that she had a long-standing interest in the topic and would have become involved in an anti-drug campaign sooner had her advisers not vetoed the subject as too downbeat. She raised money for school programs and for conferences, including one at the White House that drew spouses of leaders from nations around the world.
Because Ronald Reagan underwent several periods of major illness and lengthy convalescence, Nancy Reagan was watched closely to see what power she held. In July 1985, while he recuperated in hospital following cancer surgery, she returned to the White House to greet visiting dignitaries. Reporters speculated that a triumvirate was in charge: the president, his chief of staff, and the First Lady. Ronald Reagan endorsed this view when he thanked her for “taking part in the business of the nation.” She was widely believed to favor an arms limitation agreement with the Soviet Union, and her enthusiasm was sometimes cited as significant in the president’s quest for an accord. Before she left the White House, The New York Times credited her with expanding the role of First Lady.
Barbara Pierce Bush became First Lady after eight years of relatively inconspicuous preparation while her husband served as vice president. At age sixty-three, she was one of the oldest ever to take on the role and she chose to play it in the style of women a generation earlier. Staying away from decisions involving the president’s scheduling and his appointment and retention of staff, she stressed the ceremonial, traditional side of being a White House wife. Her tendency for self-deprecation won her many admirers, and she insisted on retaining the image that had served her well: practical and down-to-earth, without much attention to hair coloring and dress designers. Her mail told her, she said, that there were “an awful lot of white haired, wrinkled ladies out there just tickled pink” with her approach.
In the decade before moving into the White House, Barbara Bush had undertaken a leadership role in the campaign to improve literacy in the United States, and she continued this work as First Lady. Struggling with the dyslexia of one of her sons many years earlier had convinced her, she said, of the importance of the ability to read. Although George Bush billed himself as the “Education President,” it was his wife, frequently photographed visiting schools and reading to children, who became most closely identified with the cause. In 1991 she published a humorous book of photographs of the family dog, Millie’s Book, as Dictated to Barbara Bush, and when it quickly became a best-seller, she donated nearly $800,000 in royalties to the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Had she not given the money away, she would have banked far more than the president’s annual salary.
Barbara Bush kept her views on controversial issues to herself although she was widely believed to disagree with her husband on abortion and gun control. Since she had dropped out of college—she had attended Smith—and married at nineteen and had never had a full-time job of her own, she was not widely perceived as a leader among career-oriented feminists. An invitation extended to her by the administration of Wellesley College to speak at graduation ceremonies in June 1990 drew many protests from students enrolled there who objected that she had become a prominent person solely because of her marriage to a famous man. Some students signed a petition asking that the invitation be withdrawn. The First Lady spoke out in defense of students’ right to live their lives differently from her, but she did not decline the invitation. Instead, she invited Raisa Gorbachev, who happened to be slated to visit the United States about the time of the graduation, to accompany her to Wellesley and give a speech also. The event, widely covered by the media, underlined Barbara Bush’s practical, confident approach to the job, and it helps explain why she remained popular with Americans holding differing opinions about how a president’s wife should act.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman born after World War II to become First Lady, was heralded as ushering in a new era. Her own credentials suggested a departure. She was the first president’s wife to have a professional degree from the same institution as her husband and to have had a successful career of her own. After graduating in 1973 from Yale Law School, where she met Bill Clinton, she worked briefly in Washington, D.C., on the legal team employed by the House Judiciary Committee to investigate President Nixon’s connection to the Watergate break-in and the events that followed it. When that assignment ended in the summer of 1974, Hillary Rodham moved to Arkansas and taught at the state university law school in Fayetteville. She married Bill Clinton in 1975; he was elected Arkansas attorney general the following year. In 1977 Hillary Clinton took a position in Little Rock at the prestigious Rose Law Firm—one of the first women the firm had hired. Eventually she was made a partner at Rose and won praise from her colleagues, who named her to the National Law Journal list of “100 Most Influential Lawyers in America.”
During her student days, Hillary Rodham Clinton had become interested in the legal rights of children and of the poor, and as an adult she focused on these concerns. She took leadership roles (often as board member or chair) in the Children’s Defense Fund, an organization to protect the rights of minors; the Legal Services Corporation, a federally funded nonpartisan effort to make legal aid available to the indigent; and the New World Foundation, a philanthropy that gave small grants to community groups and minorities.
By 1993, two decades of professional contacts had resulted in a network of savvy, competent men and women who could assist Hillary Rodham Clinton in whatever projects she undertook as First Lady. Many of them went with her and the president to the White House. Two colleagues from the Rose Law Firm achieved particular prominence: Vincent W. Foster, Jr., served as assistant White House Counsel until his suicide in July 1993, and Webster L. Hubbell was associate attorney general until his resignation in March 1994 amid charges that he had approved excessive billing of clients while at the Rose Law Firm.
After her marriage, Hillary Rodham Clinton had taken primary responsibility for the family’s financial affairs, and during her husband’s run for president in 1992, Money magazine titled an article, “How Hillary Manages the Clintons’ Money.” Her handling of investments came under especially close scrutiny in regard to two matters: one dealt with the Clintons’ participation in the Whitewater Development Company, a real estate project in Arkansas that had foundered in the 1970s; the other, a remarkably successful venture into trading in commodity futures in the late 1970s. In the latter, the Clintons had earned a large return (generally reported as nearly $100,000) on a tiny investment of $1,000 in a matter of a few months. When a special prosecutor, Robert B. Fiske, Jr., was appointed to look into the Whitewater affair, he questioned both the president and First Lady separately about their roles—an unprecedented event.
During the 1992 campaign for president, Bill Clinton had insisted that voters would be getting a bonus if they elected him—two excellent people for just one vote. But not all Americans seemed pleased with the idea of a First Lady participating in the presidency, and Hillary Clinton’s role was de-emphasized later in the campaign. She often accompanied her husband on the campaign trail, and after the nominating convention she and Tipper Gore, wife of vice presidential candidate Albert Gore, Jr., frequently appeared together, either with their husbands or on their own.
None of this activity broke any new ground for a prospective president’s wife, but several months before Bill Clinton was nominated his wife played an important part in keeping his candidacy alive. A tabloid had run a story about Gennifer Flowers, an Arkansas woman who boasted that she had enjoyed a long sexual liaison with Bill Clinton, and other newspapers picked up the story and ran it. To counteract the charges, the Clintons agreed to appear together on the CBS television news program 60 Minutes and answer questions. While the candidate admitted to causing “pain” in his marriage, he gave no specifics. His wife was more candid, saying that whatever happened, it was the Clintons’ business and not a matter for voters to decide. She concluded that if they did not like the candidate, then “don’t vote for him.”
After the November 1992 election, Bill Clinton welcomed congressional leaders to Little Rock, and when he later described the meeting to the press, he said that his wife had been present, “talked a lot and knew more than we did about some things.” Among the very first announcements from the Clinton White House was the First Lady’s appointment to chair the Task Force on Health Care Reform and her assignment to an office on the second floor of the West Wing, a few feet from the Oval Office.
Through the first months of 1993, the task force held meetings that resulted in an unusual legal ruling on the role of First Lady. Physicians and others who wanted to participate in the meetings and express their views were barred on the grounds that only “government officials” could attend. Attorneys for the physicians argued that the president’s wife did not qualify as a “government official” and that the meetings should be opened. A district federal court agreed, but on 22 June 1993 a federal appeals court reversed that decision, ruling instead that there existed “a long standing tradition of public service by First Ladies … who have acted (albeit in the background) as advisers and personal representatives of their husbands.” Even a dissenting opinion by Judge James L. Buckley took note of the official status of a president’s wife, who is “greeted like a head of state, guarded by the Secret Service, and allowed to spend Federal money.” Since the task force had already finished its work, the verdict had no immediate effect, except to codify what had become a general acceptance of the First Lady’s status.
Beginning in September 1993, Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared in front of congressional committees to answer questions about the task force report and recommendations. Although she made five such appearances in the course of one week, segments of which were carried on national television, and was generally heralded for her expertise and poised delivery, the task force proposal found little support, either in Congress or with the public. The First Lady was generally thought to have harmed her image and that of the president by being so prominently tied to an effort that failed. Even she conceded that she had tried to do too much.
Hillary Rodham Clinton then turned to more traditional, ceremonial tasks associated with presidents’ wives for more than a century. In July 1995 she began writing a weekly syndicated column, “Talking It Over,” that ran in newspapers across the nation, but, in the style of Eleanor Roosevelt’s “My Day,” she usually stuck to safe topics such as visits to art galleries and travel. Her own trips abroad, although not entirely uncontroversial, focused on issues typically defined as women’s province such as family planning and human rights. In May 1995 she accompanied the president to Russia, but rather than investigating areas associated with her professional interests she visited museums and laid wreaths on soldiers’ graves. After considerable controversy because of the record of the People’s Republic of China on human rights, Hillary Rodham Clinton agreed to speak at the United Nations Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995.
Critics complained that Hillary Rodham Clinton could not decide on the image she wanted to project as First Lady. Her competence and sympathies for the underdog propelled her to an activist role, such as that pioneered by Eleanor Roosevelt, but she also recognized that more traditional models, such as Barbara Bush, continued to be very popular.
The Senate run dominated Mrs. Clinton’s schedule for the final two years of her husband’s second administration. In early 1999, she embarked on “listening tours” through New York State and by January 2000, she had moved into a home the Clintons purchased in Chappaqua so that she could qualify as a New York resident. On 7 November 2000, when she delivered her victory speech, she summed up the campaign as “Sixty-two counties, 16 months, three debates, two opponents and six black pantsuits” but that understated the enormous effort she had expended.
After her election, Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to balance the demands of her two roles-Senator-elect and First Lady. She attended briefing sessions with other newly elected legislators and hosted dozens of receptions and dinners at the White House. A book auction for her memoirs reaped her an $8 million dollar advance, and the Clintons bought a house in Washington, D.C.
Hillary Clinton’s early months as New York’s junior senator were plagued by continuing attention to pardons her husband had granted just before leaving office. But in each case, even the one which involved her brother Hugh, who admitted taking a payment from a person who received a pardon, she insisted she had known nothing about it. Her first major speech in the Senate dealt entirely with economic development in New York State, but the press persisted in questioning her about her role in Bill Clinton’s decisions as president—a unique situation for a senator to be in. Speculation increased that she would run for the nation’s highest office herself but she disavowed any intention to do so, saying she meant to concentrate her energy on being a good legislator.
Laura Welch Bush, who had succeeded her in the White House, distanced herself from Hillary’s activist record but, at the same time, disavowed the “traditional” label so often attached to her mother-in-law. In fact, Laura Bush combined many of the characteristics of both. Like Hillary, she held a graduate degree, having earned a master’s degree in library science in 1972. After enjoying a satisfying career as elementary teacher and school librarian, she had, like many women born after World War II, married at a much later age than either her mother or mother-in-law. (Laura was 33 when she married George W. Bush in 1977.) But like Barbara Bush, Laura took her husband’s name, stopped working soon after marrying, and devoted full time to her family, volunteer work, and her husband’s political career.
Although she once quipped that she had agreed to marry George W. Bush only after he had promised she would never have to give a political speech, campaigning was part of Laura’s marriage from the beginning. Since he had already decided to run for Congress in 1978 and his father was well on his road to the White House, she could hardly expect to avoid politics.
As popular First Lady of Texas (1995-2001), Laura Bush worked hard to improve literacy. Her most notable achievement was starting the Texas Book Festival which featured local authors and, beginning in 1996, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy books for libraries. Laura later added breast cancer awareness to her agenda, along with attention to the problems of Alzheimer’s sufferers and their families after her father died from that disease in April 1995. During her husband’s campaign for the presidency (in which she made hundreds of appearances and demonstrated how comfortable she had become in front of the microphone and speaking to large audiences) she indicated that she would concentrate on similar causes as First Lady.
Already familiar with the White House, having visited often during her father-in-law’s presidency, Laura Bush put together a staff that included trusted employees she had come to know in Texas and experienced Washingtonians who had worked for Barbara Bush. Frequently cited as a stable emotional anchor for her husband and a major support in his decision to quit drinking alcoholic beverages several years earlier, Laura demurred about a larger role. When asked if she would serve as an adviser to her husband, she once replied, “I’m just his wife. Don’t you think that’s better?” implying that as American women entered the 21st century, the definition of political wife had expanded greatly. Once free to decline a public role, a First Lady was now expected to be a polished speaker, tireless volunteer, efficient White House administrator, and politically astute assistant. What had once been remarkable had now become routine.