Remember the Ladies–The First Ladies

Today is Presidents Day, the combined birthday celebrations of Lincoln and Washington and a day to honor those who have been the Chief Executive or as they used to say in the nineteenth century, the First Magistrate of the United States. In the spirit of the day, I start by saluting the First Ladies. Here is my list of the twelve greatest First Ladies we have had. In making my choices, I considered their political savy, societal contributions before and after being in the White House and their contributions to the history of American women. I emphasize that this list is strictly personal–my own thoughts, reflections and analysis.

Eleanor Roosevelt

First and foremost on my list, in my mind the greatest First Lady we ever had, is Eleanor Roosevelt, “ER”– the longest serving in the position–from March 4, 1933 to April 12, 1945. Her political skills, journalistic style, graciousness, concern for people [I mean, how many First Ladies have gone down into coal mines or flew in a warplane with an African American pilot when racism was bitter and very public?] and advocacy efforts for human rights are unparalleled. As First Lady her press conferences were unique because she banned male reporters. Only two days after becoming First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt held the first of what would total 348 press conferences, with 35 women in attendance. Large publications wanted to carry the news which Ms Roosevelt generated, but could do so only by continuing to employ the women reporters given exclusive access to the press conferences. Her practice proved crucial in establishing women as part of the permanent and modern White House Press Corps. At the end of 1935, she wrote the first of her famous syndicated newspaper column, My Day. As First Lady, she wrote it six days a week; the only break during her White House tenure occurring on the four days following her husband’s death. As the first in her position to sponsor White House conferences, she hosted several that focused specifically on meeting the needs of women. In February, 1939 she resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution when that organization adhered to local racial restrictions and refused to rent its Constitution Hall for a concert by singer Marian Anderson. While ER was not responsible for, nor attended the ensuing public concert by Ms Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial two months later, she strongly supported the event. Two months after that, E R brought Marian Anderson to sing in the White House for the King and Queen of England. She was responsible for the 1935 appointment of the African-American educator Mary McLeod Bethune to the National Advisory Committee of the National Youth Organization. Beginning in 1934, she worked closely with Walter White, the director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and she vigorously pressed the President to support a proposed anti-lynching law. After leaving the White House, Ms Roosevelt spoke fearlessly of her concern about civil liberties as Senator Joseph McCarthy conducted his hearings. ER served as one of the key drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, being constantly mindful of the widely divergent cultures of the many nations involved, and won her own country’s support of the document. Shortly thereafter as the Human Rights Commission chair, she presented the declaration to the U.N. General Assembly on December 10th 1948. During the Kennedy Administration, Ms Roosevelt took an active role as chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, served on the Peace Corps Advisory Board, chaired a public hearing on violence against civil rights workers, and co-chair the Tractors for Freedom Committee to expedite the release of Americans held prisoner in Cuba after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

Abigail Adams

Second on my list is Abigail Adams. Self-educated daughter of a minister, she took special interest in philosophy, theology, Shakespeare, classical literature, ancient history, government and law.Correspondent with Thomas Jefferson, she brokered a reconciliation between her husband John and Jefferson as they entered their older years. Her skills were the reason her husband came through the Revolutionary War without going bankrupt as other leaders did. If her husband had followed her advice, in my opinion, his presidency would have been more successful. He also failed to follow her admonition to pay heed to the ladies. As First Lady from March 4, 1797 to March 4, 1801, she created a strong impression on the press and the public. Unofficially dubbed “Lady Adams” by critical editors she encouraged such recognition by assuming a visible ceremonial role. After touring a New Jersey Army encampment, she reviewed the troops stationed there as a proxy for the President. Often mentioned in the press, her opinions were quoted during a debate at a New England town hall meeting. For political and economic reasons as well as social, she discouraged the wearing of French-inspired fashions and encouraged political wives to wear American-made or English-made clothing. A highly partisan Federalist, Ms Adams advanced the interests of the administration by writing editorial letters to family and acquaintances, encouraging the publication of the information and her viewpoint presented in them. She remained a life-long advocate of equal public education for women and the emancipation of African-American slaves. Charles Francis Adams, one of her grandsons, in 1848 arranged for the publication of some of her famous letters, this volume becoming the first published book pertaining to a First Lady. Contemporary historian Joseph Ellis praises the worth of the 1200 extant letters between Abigail and John. Ellis asserts, and I agree, that Abigail was a better writer than her Harvard-educated husband and that she is one of the most extraordinary American women.

Michelle Obama

Third on my list, in close proximity to Ms Roosevelt and Ms Adams, is the current First Lady, Michelle Obama. (Interestingly, she and ER are the two tallest women to be First Lady, both of them standing 5′ 11″ in their bare feet.) Born in Chicago, Michelle Robinson Obama holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology, with a minor in African-American studies, from Princeton University and a law degree from Harvard Law School where she graduated cum laude. She married Barack Obama on October 3, 1992 and they are the parents of two daughters. She began her duties as First Lady almost immediately with a working lunch with Washington’s mayor and his wife, visits to schools and dropping in to speak at the Department of Education and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She makes periodic trips to almost all the federal departments and offices in Washington and vicinity where she introduces herself as a personal representative of the Obama Administration. Her declared intent is to provide a sense of connection for the thousands of civil service federal employees. Not since Eleanor Roosevelt hosted a series of large receptions for women federal workers in the 1940’s has a First Lady reached out in such ways. Additionally she is actively involved in dealing with childhood obesity, improving health care, conserving the earth’s natural resources and developing green energy. Like Ms Roosevelt and Ms Adams her legacy will endure for a long time.

Dolley Madison

For the fourth position I name Dolley Payne Todd Madison who served as First Lady from March 4, 1809 to March 3, 1817. Her first husband died of yellow fever during their fourth year of marriage. Her infant son died at the same time but her first born son, who turned out to be a ne’er-do-well, survived. About a year later she married James Madison. Because her husband was not a Quaker the Society of Friends expelled Ms Madison. James served as Secretary of State to his friend President Thomas Jefferson. Because Jefferson was a widower, Dolley Madison soon emerged as one of the women upon whom Jefferson relied to handle social affairs at the White House. By the time Ms Madison became First Lady when James was elected as Jefferson’s successor, she was already an accomplished and extremely popular Washington hostess. AsRichard Norton Smith says of her in the PBS film, “Dolley Madison, I think, has a larger claim than anyone else to having invented this unsalaried and ill-defined position that we all now take for granted, thatof the first lady. Certainly nobody knew what a first lady was. The term didn’t come into use really until Dolley Madison’s time. In the same film, journalist and historian Cokie Roberts notes that “They called her Queen Dolley because she reigned supreme over Washington.” Ms Madison saved critical pieces of American history when the British attacked Washington during the War of 1812 and then oversaw the rebuilding and redecoration of the White House. In the words of another writer, “She created the role of first lady as republican hostess. In order to accomplish this goal she established certain ceremonies, just as she had created public spaces. She managed to be elegant, even stunning, in a simple and unaffected way. Her supporters called her ‘queenly’ but her Federalist enemies accused her of being an innkeeper’s daughter, which she was not. She reached out to people and was charming and conciliating during a period in our history when rancor and partisanship dominated public and political life.”After James and Dolley Madison left the White House, she took a key role in assembling and publishing her husband’s papers, particularly his notes on the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Because the meetings were secret and no official minutes were kept, the notes of James Madison are key to our history of that momentous gathering. Without Dolley Madison’s persistence and organizational skills those documents might not have come to us as they did.

Louisa Adams

Next, in my number five spot, I list Louisa Johnson Adams, First Lady from March 4, 1825 to March 4, 1829. As her husband John Quincy Adams is vastly under-rated by most historians for his presidency, Louisa Adams is, unfortunately, greatly under-rated as a First Lady. She is the only First Lady born outside of the United States. [sshh! Not too loud–they’ll start calling for her birth certificate, trying to prove she wasn’t a citizen!] Her father was a businessman and the family was living in London, England, when Louisa Catherine was born, the second of nine children. Like her mother-in-law, Abigail, she was married to a complicated and difficult man and she endured much and struggled hard to provide lovingly to her husband and her four children, including the dashing Charles Francis Adams, Lincoln’s minister to Great Britain during the crisis of the Civil War. But before that brilliant career, his mother had to deal with Charles’ habit of frequenting houses of ill-repute while he was a student at Harvard. Louisa Adams was an independent thinker, a maverick among the women of her time and was so from her youth when one of her teachers, a Miss Young, drastically changed Louisa’s way of thinking about herself and the place of women in society, teaching her to express her own thoughts, hold her own opinions and to speak directly instead of modestly repressing herself as most young women of her class and era were trained to do. Her own study of the Bible convinced her that women had a valid claim to the same rights as men. Women’s rights became a life-long passion. Reading the writings of and engaging in extensive correspondence with the famed abolitionist and women’s rights advocates, the sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimke, made Ms Adams passionately anti-slavery. At a time when genteel women were deemed unfit for athletics, she engaged in rowing, swimming and fishing with other women friends. She read the letters of her mother-in-law, Abigail Adams, and believed they should be published as an inspiration to all American women. She wrote poetry and short plays. Of her husband’s political opponent Andrew Jackson who replaced John Quincy Adams in the White House, she wrote insightfully, “Popular governments are peculiarly liable to factions, to cabals, to intrigue. The people may often be deceived for a time by some fair-speaking demagogue, but they will never be deceived long.” Contemporary readers knew exactly what “fair-speaking demagogue” she meant–the hero of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. When Ms Adams died on May 15, 1852 in Washington, D.C. at age 77, both houses of Congress adjourned in mourning, making her the first woman whose death was so acknowledged by the federal government.

Frances Cleveland

Sixth on my list of great First Ladies is Frances Folsom Cleveland who became First Lady at age 21 when on June 2, 1886 in the Blue Room of the White House she married President Grover Cleveland, 49 years old. Music for the wedding ceremony was provided by the Marine Corps Band under the direction of John Philip Sousa. Despite the President’s efforts “Frankie”as she was called in the popular press, a nickname she disliked intensely, became an instant celebrity. She was mobbed by admirers at public events so much so that President Cleveland feared for her safety. The new First Lady joined the President in an unprecedented tour of the South and West in 1887 which increased her fame and popularity. Young women emulated her hairstyle. When she stopped wearing dresses with the bustle it ended the fashion in the United States for all practical purposes. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, alarmed that the very attractive young First Lady wore gowns that bared her shoulders, petitioned her to stop wearing such dresses because it was an “evil influence” on young women. She neither responded nor stopped wearing low-cut gowns. As First Lady she hosted receptions on Saturday mornings especially for working women who were unable to visit the White House on weekdays. Some White House staff members were shocked as ordinary shop girls, government clerks, maids and other service industry workers lined up in the decorous East Room to shake the First Lady’s hand and have a personal word with her. When she attended a ceremony to mark the opening of an organization that provided for educational, social, and practical opportunities for factory workers and made a point of greeting women workers, her action made the cover of the November 1887 Harper’s Weekly magazine. Frances Cleveland made a concerted effort to support the fledgling careers of young women in music at a time when the highest paying jobs in the professional music field went almost exclusively to men. She sponsored a young violinist, Leonora Jackson of Boston, to study in Berlin and who later became the first American to win the prized Mendelssohn Stipendium. Ms Cleveland helped to raise money for an African-American orphanage and the Colored Christmas Club, a charity providing food and clothing to poor local children at the holiday season. A year after her marriage, she also accepted a position on the board of trustees for Wells College, her alma mater. With a strong faith that women should have equal access to higher education, Frances Cleveland aided individual women in pursing a college degree and professional employment and maintained a network of like-minded women by helping to found the University Women’s Club. She provided an instrumental role in brinin the State of New Jersey to open up educational opportunities for young women, resulting in the founding of the New Jersey College for Women. She bore six children. Ms Cleveland served as First Lady between her marriage and March 4, 1889 and when her husband won a second but non-consecutive term, again served from March 4, 1893 to March 4, 1897. President Cleveland died in 1908, leaving her a widow at age 44. She remarried in 1913 and lived until 1947, the longest period any First Lady lived after leaving the White House.

Jackie Kennedy

In the seventh spot, I place Betty Ford. Eighth in this close field of my list is Jackie Kennedy. Filling the ninth slot is Lady Bird Johnson. Number ten for me is Rosalyn Carter. As these women are somewhat more contemporary and better known to most modern readers, I’ll save my analysis for a later time and finish my list with two more historic figures.

Rosalynn Carter

Eleventh on my list is Edith Wilson. Like Frances Cleveland, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson married a sitting president. Widowed in 1908, Edith Galt bought her own car, learned to drive and motored around to Washington social events without a chauffeur. She was introduced to President Wilson in early March, 1915 by one of the President’s cousins. Woodrow Wilson’s first wife had died in August, 1914, just as war erupted in Europe. The President quickly fell for Ms Galt, proposed after a matter of months and married her on December 18, 1915 at a ceremony in her home. Because Wilson, a very private man, preferred to work in the family quarters rather than in the Oval Office, Edith Wilson was his confidante and constant companion from the date of their marriage until his death. After the United States entered the war in April 1917, Edith Wilson became privy to classified information. Publicly, she led fund raising efforts by selling the wool sheared from sheep that grazed on the White House lawn, volunteered at the Red Cross canteen at Union Station where soldiers were departing for the war front, and released a public service statement warning soldiers against the dangers of venereal disease which they might encounter in Europe. Leading by example, she instituted certain days of the week when meat, wheat and gasoline were not used in order to conserve these resources for the war effort. After the Armistice of November 11th 1918, Edith Wilson became the first of the First Ladies to travel to Europe during her incumbency. She accompanied the President on two separate occasions, one in 1918, another in 1919, to visit troops and to attend the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Her presence among the queens and royal women of Europe put the position of First Lady on an equivalent standing, thus helping to define the uniquely American role in an international context. When President Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in October, 1919, Edith Wilson decided to continue his work by conducting a disinformation campaign, misleading Congress and the public into believing that the President really suffered from temporary exhaustion which required extensive rest. She became the sole conduit between the President and his Cabinet. As her husband began partially to recover, Ms Wilson guarded access to him from advisors and politicians. When Republican Senator Albert Fall of New Mexico was sent to investigate the President’s condition, Edith Wilson helped arrange Wilson in bed to be presentable and sat through the brief meeting, taking verbatim notes. [Edith Wilson may have felt some satisfaction a few years later when Fall would be convicted for his part in the corruption of the Teapot Dome scandal.] She outlived President Wilson by forty-seven years and died in December, 1961, having been present at John Kennedy’s inauguration.

edith Wilson

Last on my list of the top twelve is Lucy Webb Hayes, First Lady from March 4, 1877 to March 4, 1881. She was born in Ohio to parents who were both strong abolitionists and she grew up in the Methodist church in which she was active all her life. Among First Ladies, she was to first to hold a college degree. During her time in the White House Ms Hayes expressed care and concern for Civil War veterans, especially those permanently disabled with injuries. After viewing excessive drinking at the first state dinner, one given by her husband for the Grand Dukes Alexis and Constantine, sons of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, in April 1877, she made it White House policy to serve only lemonade and ice water, earning her the nickname “Lemonade Lucy” from critics. While not supportive of woman suffrage, Ms Hayes actively supported women in the right to work, for example, helping to place two individual women in federal service position, one at the Agriculture Department and the other at the Patent Office. After Belva Ann Lockwood, also a Methodist, became the first woman admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court [March, 1879], Ms Hays gave her a celebratory party at the White House. Ms Hayes felt deep concern for the poor and became noted for her generosity and willingness to help. In January of 1880 alone her personal giving totaled $1,000, an amount equal to approximately $22,000 today. She gave a sympathetic ear to the efforts of the Native American tribe of Paiutes to have the federal government transfer them from forced detention in Washington territory to a preferred place in Oregon, an effort frustrated by the U S Army. A patron of the arts, she managed to move her husband to resume construction efforts on the Washington Monument and arranged for an Ohio artist to paint a full-length portrait of Martha Washington to hang opposite that of George Washington in the White House. She loved to sing and on any number of occasions, invited African-American musical groups to perform in the White House, including students of the Colored Industrial School, and famed soprano Madame Marie Selika, introduced to the First Lady by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, then in his 60’s. A year after she sang at the White House, Madame Selika invited Ms Hayes to come to a concert at St Luke’s Protestant Episcopal Church in Washington, a predominately black congregation, an invitation which the First Lady readily accepted. Lucy Hayes was the first of First Ladies to have a telephone installed in the White House and she used it regularly. She loved animals of all sorts.The story is told that when she died, eight years after leaving the White House and returning to the Hayes estate in Ohio, her dairy cows quietly lined up on their own at the fence to watch her funeral procession pass by.

Lucy Hayes
So on this Presidents Day I elect to follow the advice of Abigail Adams and indeed remember the Ladies, the First Ladies. Our history is enriched by these women, some of whom would have made better presidents than their spouses–but I’ll leave that duscussion for another time.
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