The most boring exhibit I ever saw in any of the Washington, DC Smithsonian museums was, without a doubt, the gowns of the First Ladies. Oh, how I could not have cared less. But my mother preened over them like she'd just found some rare bird egg sitting under her window. Helen Taft? Grace Coolidge? Elizabeth Monroe? I didn't care about their dresses, and I certainly didn't know who they were as women. On top of that, weren't First Ladies just... housewives in a really nice house?
Originally, I wanted to write this post about how we in modern America have come to understand the First Lady's duties and by extension, personalities, since Hillary Clinton—because she was seen as stepping outside the narrow field allowed to her as a First Lady. But in combing through reactions to Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama I found out a thing or two about several of the other First Ladies that gave me some amount of pause.
- Elizabeth Monroe traveled to French prisons twice—once to lobby for the Marquis de Lafayette's wife's release during the French Revolution, and once to demand the release of Thomas Paine
- Lucy Hayes spearheaded a push to create orphanages for children of the Civil War and slavery, as part of the new pro-abolitionist Republican Party
- Edith Roosevelt created the Office of the First Lady and dubbed the Executive Mansion the "White House"
- Florence Harding publicly supported prison reform, in part because of how suffragists had been treated
The history of the First Ladies seems to be the history of how women respond to their gender role in public. Back and forth through their husbands' administrations, these women either balked at being restrained by the title of First Lady, or embraced it to some degree. For some, it was just a larger household to run, but for others, it was a fiefdom for political power, depending on their own interests.
Dollie Madison, apparently, set the tone and model for being First Lady—she saw her role as acting as a pre-eminent American citizen, handling the social affairs and events of the White House, and creating a public persona that caught the interest of the press. The tendrils of her efforts reach into today's understanding of who a First Lady should be, and were on a collision course for someone like Hillary Clinton.
Although Washington always has its opinions on whether and how First Ladies influence their spouses in the realm of policy making, the city wasn't ready for a First Lady to take an active, direct role in something as controversial as say, health care reform, especially as Hillary Clinton was named head of this task force after Bill had been President for only 5 days. The criticism of the reform—that it was too complicated, too socialist, too expansive—came straight at Hillary's head, and the staff in the First Lady's office probably weren't prepared for it. Much hay was made over a seemingly new clash of ideals: the very well educated, professionally astute woman and the traditional role of the happy homemaker with First Lady as Homemaker #1.
Laura Bush's tenure as First Lady brought the level of invective back down; her comment that "the role of the First Lady is whatever she wants it to be" spoke both to her acknowledgement that perhaps the role had changed over the years, and a foretelling in that Laura's approach would be more traditional. While she took on education as her general interest, she was not seen as disagreeing with any of her husband's policies as he pushed to enact the No Child Left Behind bill, even as she made her own call to raise teacher salaries and provide better training for Head Start teachers. Her literacy initiative was, by design, not controversial.
I wondered how the public would respond when Michelle Obama moved into the White House. She was also an Ivy League alum, with a very successful career in Chicago. How would she handle the duties of her office?
Well for one, she would avoid controversy from the right by staying way the hell away from health care reform. Early news about her office included hosting local school children in the White House, planting a garden, and beginning an initiative to draw attention to childhood obesity. While I'm not a fan of body-policing children, I don't have anything against wellness per se. I suspected, before Obama's election, that Michelle would chafe against such tight boundaries, but so far, her public persona is positive-focused and family friendly.
Family friendliness aside, what I'd really love to see in regards to First Ladies is a conversation about how women's history is put into a corner, the viciousness with which we attack women in the public sphere who step too far out of restrictive gender roles, or what the value of tradition means to a public with very little historical memory.