Beasley, M. (2005). First ladies and the press: The unfinished partnership of the media age. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. 337 pages.
In this comprehensive and informative volume, one of the two first works in a new series on journalism history from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Maurine Beasley declares: "Maligned, trivialized, and occasionally demonized, first ladies can be used as a case study of societal attitudes toward women as reinforced by media bias" (p. 235). In investigating her topic, Beasley not only has provided the synthesis of secondary sources typical of such survey-style works but also has done her own primary-source research, drawing on archival materials and interviews with journalists and publicists who worked with some of her subjects.
The majority of the text focuses on the past dozen first ladies, although it does touch at least briefly on the press image of every woman to have held this title. The reader learns about some early women, largely lost to modern memory, who held political opinions that made their ways into the press, such as Sarah Polk and Lucy Hayes, both opposed to alcohol in a mid-nineteenth-century political climate in which temperance was at the center of women's rights activism. We also see how press portrayals of first ladies evolved according to broader ideals for American womanhood, with the more activist "Republican Mother" such as Abigail Adams giving way to the "True Woman" hardly seen in public, in turn giving way to a Gilded Age hostess such as Julia Grant. We see how first ladies' public images were shaped by the evolution of journalism itself, with the 24-year-old Julia Tyler "fawned over" by the Penny Press, and Edith Roosevelt hiring her own publicity person during the dawn of modern public relations.
It is Eleanor Roosevelt, however, whose story begins the book. She serves as a turning point in the role, both an exception to norms and the gold standard against which subsequent...