Examining First Ladies Beyond a “One-Dimensional Lens”
This association is still relevant for a nation that has long viewed its first ladies as cultural icons before political figures. Jackie Kennedy, Gutin notes, was a staple of fashion magazines during her tenure as first lady.
“And although she is known to most as a culture and fashion icon, what she would like to be remembered is for her vast knowledge of history and historical preservation,” Gutin said, citing the White House visit as the product of his passion.
Kennedy was far from the only first lady whose story was reduced to her choice of clothing. As Martha Washington traveled from Virginia to New York over two centuries ago, she noted that her hair needed to be washed and dressed every day in her new role as the president’s wife. To this day, the Smithsonian’s first ladies’ dress exhibit remains the only knowledge many Americans know about them. And while fashion is an important way to connect with history, “it’s a very one-dimensional lens to look at them through,” Gutin says.
This sentiment is shared by Anita McBride, founding member of FLARE who was previously Laura Bush’s chief of staff. McBride’s “front row seat” in his advocacy and involvement has helped boost his dedication to telling first ladies stories.
McBride was in the White House on September 11, 2001, and although she was not yet working for Laura Bush, she remembers the then first lady’s remarks as a key point. moment. It was after that day that Laura Bush was dubbed the “Chief Comforter” for her role in bringing peace to the nation, a role in which many other presidential spouses also played.
“I think this is an example of the role a first lady can play in making an impact on the nation,” said McBride, who also heads the First Ladies Initiative at American University. “And that was obviously a unique situation. But there have been other times in our history where the voice of the first lady has really helped in areas of national tragedy, ”she added, noting Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in rallying Americans around. of the war effort during World War II.
Of course, the exact role of the first lady changes from person to person. There was Eleanor Roosevelt, whom some historians call the “gold standard” of the first ladies. There was Dolley Madison, who is best known for saving George Washington’s portrait from a White House fire started by the British during the War of 1812. There was Mary Todd Lincoln, who visited wounded soldiers from the Union on horseback during the Civil War. And in recent years, there’s been Hillary Clinton, who won a Senate seat when she was first lady and became secretary of state.
As the only woman to win the presidential nomination of a major party in U.S. history, Clinton’s 2016 White House campaign also came close to making her husband, former President Bill Clinton. , the very first gentleman in the country.
James Rosebush, who worked for Nancy Reagan during her husband’s tenure in the White House, was the first person to serve as a commissioned officer for the president while he was the first lady’s chief of staff. When he thinks of his legacy, Rosebush says he thinks of a graduation ceremony they attended in Florida for children who had completed their drug rehab program. Rosebush sat next to Reagan as she watched the children hug and mourn their parents when their names were announced. In her hands, she clutched index cards with her prepared remarks written in blue ink. Everyone was crying, Rosebush, of the Secret Service told reporters.
Before addressing the gym, Reagan turned to Rosebush and tore up his index cards.
“It was an example of an escape moment for her,” Rosebush said, “and it worked because she exposed herself. She made herself vulnerable.
Rosebush said Reagan’s role was to support her husband in his presidency, an idea echoed by Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein. Duberstein said that many mornings Nancy Reagan called her as her husband walked into the office, giving her advice on planning based on how well she had sleep the night before.
It’s stories like these that FLARE wants to share, raising awareness of the first lady’s unpaid, unelected, full-time work. Gutin said that after giving lectures, people often come to her with one of two reactions: either they had no idea about the impact of the first ladies and they want to know more, or they have their own story to share after meeting one of the presidents’ spouses. This is how she heard some of her favorite First Lady stories, including that of a woman who was at Kennedy’s inaugural ball when Jackie looked her straight in the eye and said, “I have also this necklace.
According to the “first lady’s academic study godfather,” Lewis Gould, many first ladies are very influential, although they were cheated in their time. Gould, who taught the first college class on First Ladies, has already given Lady Bird Johnson a tour of his class. Before she came, he started getting calls from news agencies and others asking if they could attend his 15-person class.
“And I started to perceive that the first ladies were public figures who had this celebrity culture around them,” Gould said.
In their status as public figures, McBride said that presidents’ wives can help “soften the shock” of public perception about the President. After all, the first lady is almost always much more popular than her husband. When Barack Obama left the White House with a slowly rising 58% approval rating towards the end of his term, the numbers were even better for Michelle Obama, who was viewed favorably by 72% of people polled in a Pew poll. As for the assets, the former president stepped down with an approval rate down nearly 30%. Yet Melania Trump slightly overshadowed it, with 42% approval rate according to a CNN / SSRS poll.
As for the country’s very first second gentleman, Gutin said she was watching Doug Emhoff, who has previously proven to be politically active on issues, with great interest. And current first lady Jill Biden is setting a historic new precedent by taking a job outside the home – teaching English and writing classes at Northern Virginia Community College.
“We have gradually moved towards this modern characterization of the spouse as a working spouse,” said McBride. “And she takes us there. So, you know, each of them makes a contribution in their own way. “