The first lady reconsidered: presidential partner and political institution.

Author:Watson, Robert P.
Position:Rules of the Game: How to Play the Presidency

It is sad and telling that the press and public alike are unaware that

Presidential wives since Abigail Adams have been wielding political


Edith Mayo, Director Smithsonian First Ladies Exhibit

Being first lady requires a woman to act ... as a mixture of queen, club

woman, and starlet. I

Lewis L. Gould, presidential scholar

The president's spouse has the potential to become an important

component of the contemporary presidency.

George Edwards and Stephen J. Wayne Presidential Leadership: Politics and Policy Making

A Case for the Study of the First Lady

She is widely considered to be one of the most powerful people in Washington, yet we know little about her responsibilities or her predecessors. Her name has routinely appeared atop the annual Gallup poll of America's most admired women in the world, but there exists little systematic study of what she has done to deserve this attention. It could be argued that she is the second most powerful person in the world, even though some scholars dismiss the effort to formalize a field of study of her as "trivial" or unworthy of serious academic attention. However, recent scholarship on the matter is beginning to reverse long-standing assumptions about her and is raising some provocative and important questions.(1) Yet, many of these questions remain largely unexamined yet alone answered. Indeed, she is the missing link in our study of the presidency and a strong case exists for formal study of the unknown institution" of the office of the president: the first lady.(2)

Scholarship over the past decade on the first lady reveals that many White House wives have had considerable influence on their husband's careers, decisions, and policies.(3) Considering the social forces limiting a woman's involvement in politics and influence in society and the fact that women could not even vote until 1920, the political activism and influence of several pre-twentieth century first ladies is remarkable. In fact, a new view of an "activist political partner" is emerging as possibly the rule rather than the exception for the female occupants of the White House.(4) There appear to be several reasons for the recent interest. In addition to the books written during the late 1980s--which are both reflective of the new interest and serve to further interest in the subject--there were several high-profile conferences organized or chaired by important women such as Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan. For example, in April 1984 there was a meeting at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, dedicated to the exploration of the lives and roles of first ladies. The controversy that surrounded Nancy Reagan because of her expensive and extravagant lifestyle and perceived influence over, and control of, President Reagan caused the media, general public, and politicians to question the nature of the role and extent of influence of the first lady.(5) Another factor which piqued the interest in first ladies was the availability of primary source material for studying the first ladies. More presidential libraries opened their holdings of the first lady's papers and White House social files.(6) More recently, the open advisory role played by Hillary Rodham Clinton and the fact that she has an office in the West Wing of the White House have produced criticism and public debate over the "proper" role of the first lady.

On one hand, the first lady is deserving of study simply because the institution has been a part of the presidency since the founding of the nation. Most presidents, after all, have been married and most of them have had their partner with them while serving in the White House. Only two bachelors were elected to the presidency: James Buchanan and Grover Cleveland, the latter marrying while in the White House. Only a few presidents have occupied the White House without their spouses. For example, both Ellen Arthur and Rachel Jackson died shortly before their husbands' presidencies, Ellen Arthur just prior to Chester A. Arthur's vice presidency and Jackson in the interim between election and inauguration. Martin Van Buren and Thomas Jefferson lost their wives well before their White House days and the wives of Benjamin Harrison, John Tyler, and Woodrow Wilson died during their presidencies. However, Wilson and Tyler remarried before leaving the White House.

The presidency can be viewed as a "team."(7) The various presidential advisers and institutions of the White House form this team. So too must the first lady be included within the "plural presidency." Not only is her office budget and staff larger than many of the so-called "key" advisers and institutions that presidential scholars study, but as presidential spouse she assumes a role perhaps more central to the president's career and White House success than any formal adviser. This influence a spouse might have should be no surprise to anyone who is married and can be seen in the presidency.(8) As such, presidential scholar Gil Troy, in his book Affairs of State, examines the presidency from the perspective of the character of the presidential marriage.(9) The president's character, beliefs on the family, and commitment to women's issues might be examined through his relationship with his wife, as should her symbolic role shaping or reflecting society's shifting views on womanhood and gender.(10)

Scholarly study is also necessary because the reality of the matter is that the public persona and roles of the first lady have become an institution of the presidency, the American political system, and, in a larger sense, American society. There has been recent scholarly attention devoted to the first lady, led by such well-respected scholars as Lewis L. Gould, but there is a need for a more formalized, systematic approach to the subject.(11) Generally, first ladies have been relegated to a footnote in history. The only roles even conceptualized for the first lady prior to this century have been those of ceremonial White House hostess and the quiet "good wife."(12) Even today, some studies and books on the topic, several of which have amounted to little more than society gossip and a social interest in her marriage, children, and hostessing talents, have not envisioned a role beyond that of wife and hostess. Additionally, despite the fact that there have been several "activist political partners" as first ladies, whenever a first lady such as Rosalynn Carter or Hillary Clinton shows such characteristics, the press, public, and biographers speak of her as "non-traditional" or as breaking new ground by taking an "unprecedented" interest in politics and the issues.(13)

The State, of First Lady/Presidential Spouse Scholarship

Until recently, the American public and scholars knew little about early first ladies, the significant contributions they made to individual presidents and the office of the presidency, or the institution of the first lady itself Scholars have noted that there exists, for instance, no "tightly argued thesis" or scholarly theories and models on the first lady.(14) No framework exists to guide scholarly research on the subject although arguments have been made to formalize a field of study of the institution.(15) Much of the study of the subject does not attempt to place the first lady into the larger context of the history of women or the institution of the presidency.(16)

Most of the writings completed prior to 1980 are anecdotal in nature, focusing on childhood stories and marriage, and are limited to the first lady's role as wife and mother and her social hostessing in the White House.(17) More disturbingly, a look at the voluminous literature base on the presidency reveals that the first lady has been completely ignored in presidential scholarship. Rarely is she even mentioned, let alone considered as a worthy or useful topic of study. Despite the many approaches to the study of the presidency--legal, institutional, political power, relations with Congress, character, and so on--not one considers the president's partner. Even presidential character studies, which draw on the social backgrounds of the presidents, fall to significantly discuss the influence of the president's wife and lifelong partner.(18) This neglect is true in the leading textbooks on the president, where to the reader it would appear that there never even was such an individual or institution as the first lady. The vast majority of the textbooks describe "important" institutions, advisers, and staff within the White House or Executive Office of...

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