From the Editor

The Constitution does not spell out the duties or define the powers of a president’s spouse, yet America’s “first ladies” have, from the beginning of our nation, played key roles as public figures. They have set precedents, established social protocols, embraced reforms, advocated policies, and served as role models for many American girls and young women. As March is Women’s History month, this issue of History Now focuses on the lives of four of our most notable first ladies. Perhaps a future issue will focus on the lives of notable first gentlemen.

Betty Boyd Caroli starts the issue off with an overview entitled “First Ladies’ Contributions to Political Issues and the National Welfare.” Caroli traces the increasing celebrity of the women in the White House, especially in the decades following the Civil War. In their public roles, nineteenth- and twentieth-century first ladies emerged as advocates for a broad range of social reforms and as supporters of charitable organizations; in private, they often served as sounding boards and political advisors to their presidential husbands. Many, if not most, of the modern first ladies were accomplished women in their own right, with university degrees and expertise in fields such as geology and the practice of law.

Patricia Brady reminds us, in “Martha Washington Creates the Role of First Lady,” how ill defined the position was and how critical a role Martha Washington played in providing shape and substance to it. The social rituals of a republican government had to be different from those of European courts, yet they had to clearly define the appropriate relationships between the president, his wife, and the public. When the rituals established by America’s political leaders proved too rigid and too demanding, Martha Washington, Brady notes, quietly but firmly modified them. This was her gift to her successors.

In “Dolley Madison: First Lady and Queen,” Catherine Allgor explains why a woman whose achievements seem small—redecorating the White House, giving successful parties, and charming her guests—nevertheless remains one of the most famous of our first ladies. Dolley Madison understood the power that resided in sociability and in the myriad activities belonging to the feminine sphere. In redecorating the White House, she made it a symbol of the capital city. She made the public areas of the White House spacious and used them to bring together political figures of both parties, friends and foes alike of her husband. In short, she knew how to grease the wheels of compromise and encourage national unity. Equally important, she understood the political role women could play in social settings and the influence they could wield in informal gatherings.

In “Eleanor Roosevelt as First Lady,” Maurine Beasley offers us a portrait of one of the most famous, and most politically active, of the modern presidents’ wives. Unwilling to define her role as first lady in purely social terms, Eleanor Roosevelt built an independent reputation as an author, a lecturer, and a radio personality. She was an active advocate of women’s trade unions and women’s participation in politics and she publicly supported African American rights and the state of Israel. Despite the failure of their personal relationship, she and her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, were acknowledged to have a true political partnership throughout his long career in office. After his death, Beasley notes, Eleanor Roosevelt continued her public role, serving as the US representative to the United Nations and leading the Human Rights Commission.

Finally, Gil Troy recounts the contributions of Betty Ford in his essay, “Betty Ford: A New Kind of First Lady.” Her life illustrates the important example a first lady can set for the nation. Her public discussion of her breast cancer and mastectomy made her a national hero, and, as Troy notes, saved many other women’s lives. Her power, Troy observes, was educational rather than political, and she used her fame to advocate causes such as the ERA, mental health, and ending child abuse. Her most powerful, and often controversial, characteristic was candor. While in the White House, she admitted to drinking and to the use of tranquilizers and she helped take the shame out of seeking help from a psychiatrist. After the Fords left office, she publicly acknowledged her addiction to pills and alcohol. Troy argues that Betty Ford’s candor may have killed her husband’s presidency, and thus later first ladies have been more reluctant to speak so frankly about their personal lives.

This issue also offers readers an interactive “Map of the First Ladies” as well as lesson plans that meet Common Core Standards.

Our summer issue of History Now will look at the best inaugural addresses by American presidents and ask noted historians to explore their impact on the nation’s political life.

Until June,

Carol Berkin

Add comment

Login or register to post comments