Source Material: Toward the Study of the First Lady: The State of Scholarship. (Features)

By Watson, Robert P. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Source Material: Toward the Study of the First Lady: The State of Scholarship. (Features)


Watson, Robert P., Presidential Studies Quarterly


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.

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