The Presidents' Wives: Reassessing the Office of First Lady. By Robert P. Watson. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000. 260 pp.
It has not been an easy task establishing research about the American First Lady as a legitimate area of scholarly inquiry. Researchers in the area can all too easily provide evidence of rejected books, articles, and conference panels. Yet, First Lady historians persevered, because they believed that there were important lessons about the presidency and American culture that could be learned by studying the president's spouse.
Early in his book, Professor Robert P. Watson writes,
Currently, no framework exists to guide serious scholarly research on the subject, there is no coherent research agenda for the future, and no rationale has been offered for the formalization of a field of study of the institution of the first lady. (P. 22) This is a rather sweeping generalization; the field is more well developed than Watson would have readers believe. Many books that were published prior to 1960 were public relations pieces or sensational biographies of specific First Ladies. By the 1980s, however, serious scholars were working with primary materials in presidential libraries. Professor Lewis L. Gould spoke about the importance of the Office of First Lady and the need for research in his opening address to the Modern First Ladies Conference held at the Ford Museum in 1984. Books by Betty Boyd Caroli, First Ladies (1987); Myra G. Gutin, The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century (1989); Carl Sferrazza Anthony, First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents' Wives and Their Power, vols. 1-2 (1990, 1991); Lewis L. Gould, editor, American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy (1996); and Gil Troy, Affairs of State: The Rise and Rejection of the Presidential Couple since World War II(1997) are comparative scholarly studies of the First Lady. Although the research shelf might not be filled, these books have helped to establish the parameters for this field of research.
First Lady research is not new, but it is expanding rapidly. Watson's book pulls together a great deal of material about the history and functions of the American First Lady. He makes a number of contributions to the literature. "Historical Periods of the First Ladyship" offers an interesting paradigm for study, as it moves from "First Spouses: Shaping the Image and Role, 1789-1871" through "Aspiring Spouses: Developing New Roles, 1901-1945" and...