The Presidents' Wives: Reassessing the Office of First Lady

The Presidents' Wives: Reassessing the Office of First Lady

The Presidents' Wives: Reassessing the Office of First Lady

The Presidents' Wives: Reassessing the Office of First Lady


With several journal articles on the topic to his credit (but no affiliation cited), Watson counters the view that "the unknown institution" of First Lady has not played a central role in US politics. Mrs. Clinton is regarded as the heir to a long legacy of influential women in the White House rather than as an anomaly. The author concludes with advice to future first ladies. Contains tables ranking the presidential partners according to various criteria, profiles of them with key dates and education, but only four photos. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (


The failure of political scientists and historians to consider the
political role of first ladies neglects the role of a key player in the
president's inner circle.

—Karen O'Connor, Bernadette Nye, and Laura Van Assendelft,
Presidential Studies Quarterly

Conventional wisdom has held that first ladies have not occupied a central position in political affairs or U.S. history and have functioned as little more than feminine window dressing to the office of the presidency. But in the early 1920s, long before the country experienced Hillary Rodham Clinton, the epitome of the modern, activist first lady, and a dozen years before the reign of Eleanor Roosevelt, widely considered to be the first powerful White House spouse, there was Florence Harding.

The Power Behind the Throne

Many bold assertions have been attributed to Mrs. Harding. For instance, on the eve of Warren Harding's ascension to the nation's highest office, she is said to have commented to her husband, [Well, Warren, I have got you the presidency, what are you going to do with it?] On another occasion, she apparently quipped, [I know what's best for the President, I put him in the White House.] During Harding's presidency political cartoonists even depicted the couple as [the Chief Executive and Mr. Harding.] If these quotes are in fact accurate, are Mrs. Harding's words and, perhaps more important, the actions underlying them aberrations in U.S. history?

Consider the administration of President Harding's predecessor, Woodrow Wilson. In June 1919, at the close of World War I, President . . .

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