Source material: toward the study of the first lady: the state of scholarship.

Author:Watson, Robert P.

I hope that someday someone will take the time to evaluate the true role of the wife of a president, and to assess the many burdens she has to bear and the contributions she makes.

--Harry S. Truman

Getting right to the point, first ladies have done it all. Presidential spouses dating to Martha Washington have functioned as their husband's trusted confidante, key supporter, and counselor in times of crisis. First ladies presided over state dinners and a variety of social affairs held at the executive mansion and also deserve credit for renovating and preserving the White House. So too have these wives edited presidential speeches, hit the campaign trail, testified before Congress, lobbied on behalf of legislation, chaired task forces, traveled internationally as unofficial presidential envoys, and championed important social causes. Indeed, the accomplishments and political activities of first ladies--at least those serving from Eleanor Roosevelt to the present time--have been fairly well documented in recent years.

Quite early on, the first lady emerged as a key player in what would become known as the White House. The first ladyship is an institution in that the far majority of presidents have served with their wife beside them, presidential spouses are well-known public figures, and the first ladyship has become an office-albeit one of extraconstitutional design--complete with office space, staff, and budget. Nevertheless, scholarship on the first ladies is a quite recent phenomenon and, as a subfield, it is still maturing.

Growing Interest in First Ladies

Possibly due to the controversial and highly public first ladyship of Hillary Clinton, coming on the heels of the controversial but powerful first ladyship of Nancy Reagan and the popular first ladyship of Barbara Bush, the office has generated much interest by the public, press, and scholars alike. However, as will be noted, scholars came quite late to the game.

With the exception of the significant media coverage of and public attention paid to Eleanor Roosevelt, popular interest in modern first ladies grew considerably in the 1980s. In April 1984, a conference titled "Modern First Ladies: Private Lives and Public Duties" was held at the Gerald R. Ford Library in Michigan. A year later, NBC aired a one-hour, primetime special on First Lady Nancy Reagan. During the 1988 presidential campaign, the press and pundits pondered a first lady forum for the candidates' wives. Analysts noted that the candidates--George Bush and Michael Dukakis--were nowhere near as interesting as their wives, Barbara and Kitty (Watson 2000b). In addition to Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Dukakis--who had lectured at Harvard-the other presidential hopefuls in 1988 boasted capable spouses. The group included three lawyers--Hattie Babbitt, wife of Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt; Jeanne Simon, wife of Illinois senator Paul Simon; and Elise du Pont, wife of former Delaware governor Pierre "Pete" du Pont. Tipper Gore, wife of then-Tennessee senator Al Gore, was an author and activist with a graduate education; and Jill Jacobs, wife of Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, was, at the time, pursuing her second master's degree.

In 1992, the candidates' wives again proved to be newsworthy. Hillary Rodham Clinton would become the first first lady with a graduate education, completing her law degree at Yale. During Mrs. Clinton's first term as first lady, a $1,000-a-plate event was held at the U.S. National Botanical Garden to raise awareness, support, and funding for the new National Garden in Washington, a monument dedicated to the first ladies. First ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, and Barbara Bush joined Mrs. Clinton in honoring the service of all first ladies. In 1996, both presidential candidates' spouses--Hillary Clinton, with degrees from Wellesley and Yale; and Elizabeth Dole, with degrees from Harvard and Duke--possessed ivy league diplomas, law degrees, and impressive political resumes. Mrs. Dole was a former secretary of labor and secretary of transportation, and Mrs. Clinton had been rated by the American Bar Association as one of the one hundred most influential attorneys in the United States.

The spouses from the 1996 race would eventually go on to prove that the first ladyship was not the conclusion of their political service but rather a launching pad for senatorial careers. The 2000 race proved to be a continuation of this trend, as both Laura Bush and Tipper Gore held master's degrees, as did the spouses of their husbands' leading opponents--John McCain and Bill Bradley, whose wife happened to also hold a Ph.D.

The American Studies Summer Institute at Louisiana State University in Shreveport devoted the focus of its triennial program in 1997 to the topic of "First Couples in the White House: Presidents and Spouses," while in June 1998, the National First Ladies' Library opened at the historic Saxton-McKinley House in Canton, Ohio. (1) Prominent television programs such as A & E and Biography have produced video documentaries on the lives of several first ladies, and the first ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History remains a popular attraction. Reflecting the growing interest in first ladies and expanding political influence and activism, the exhibit has since been enlarged and renamed "First Ladies: Political Role, Public Image," and provides a serious and educational examination of the "office." (2)

Coinciding with the growing interest in first ladies, it is now conventional wisdom that the president's spouse wields influence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and has emerged as a political force with which to be reckoned. Recent scholarship on the first ladies is making it equally clear that this influence and activism is less the exception than it is the rule, that Hillary Rodham Clinton was less the "trailblazing" activist she was made out to be by the press than she was simply the latest in a long line of active, capable, and political wives to live in the White House (Caroli 1987; Watson 2000b).

There has been a proliferation of books on the first ladies in recent years, some academic and some not so academic. The publications include a bewildering array of children's books, coloring books, paper doll cut-out books, books on White House china collections and inaugural balls, the first ladies' favorite recipes, collections of photographs, accounts of the dresses and fashion of first ladies, first family ancestries, the usual assortment of gossip and scandal, and even novels. Add to this books such as First Ladies Quotations Book (Foss 1999), Exclusively First Ladies Trivia (Pitch 1993), and the enduring guidebook The First Ladies, first published by the White House Historical Association and National Geographic Society in 1975 and still sold to tourists visiting the capitol city (Klapthor 1975). Hit television shows have taken viewers into the West Wing, the White House, and the security detachment assigned to the first lady, and an assortment of plays about first ladies have hit the stage. (3)

The Literature

Edith Roosevelt once quipped, "A lady's name should appear in print only three times, at her birth, marriage, and death." Sadly, it appears that historians took Mrs. Roosevelt's advice to heart. Indeed, the first ladies, as a group, have generally been ignored by scholars. Historically, few books examined more than the cursory facets of first ladies' lives, and even though they are somewhat helpful to scholars today, these books are largely social accounts and stories of first ladies. The literature base on first ladies receives a mixed grade, containing several excellent biographies, collections of letters and papers for a few first ladies, and a growing list of scholarly texts. At the same time, the author estimates that roughly one-half of the books in print on the first ladies are neither reliable nor useful to scholars. (4) Table 1 lists the books focusing on individual first ladies. It does not include books on the first ladies collectively, nor does it include children's coloring books or paper doll collections and the like.

The lion's share of serious biographies and scholarly collections of papers for the first ladies are devoted to only a handful of first ladies: Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, Mary Todd Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jacqueline Kennedy. Very little of substance exists for other first ladies, and most of the first ladies have yet to be the focus of a serious, reputable biography. Moreover, as is evident in Table 1, several first ladies have yet to be treated in print. Margaret Taylor, Abigail Fillmore, Jane Pierce, Harriet Lane (James Buchanan's niece and hostess), Eliza Johnson, Ellen Arthur, Caroline Harrison, and Ida McKinley have yet to be examined in print. Martha Jefferson, Elizabeth Monroe, Hannah Van Buren, Letitia Tyler, and Julia Tyler have each been the focus of one book. However, these, along with much of the literature on first ladies, are either scant leaflets, fiction, or something that would not qualify as serious scholarship.

As will be discussed, most books written on the first ladies prior to the late 1980s were little more than social accounts of the weddings, children, and dresses of first ladies, and frequently these works were romanticized to the point of fiction. Some of the better, more ambitious early works are listed in Table 2.

The first book ever written by a first lady was penned by Louisa Catherine Adams, who wrote her memoirs but did not intend them to be published. This work is available today as part of the Adams Papers Microfilms at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The first book ever published on a first lady was done so in 1848, when Charles Francis Adams published his grandmother's letters in the volume Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams. Perhaps the first biography of a first lady to be published was a campaign bio titled...

To continue reading