First Ladies

First Ladies

First Ladies

First Ladies

Synopsis

As we move toward the year 2000, Americans continue to debate the job of First Lady. How much power does the position actually hold? How publicly should that power be wielded? First Ladies tells the story of this curious institution and the evolution of these women's role from ceremonial backdrop to substantive world figure. This expanded edition brings us up to the present, examining the legacies of our three most recent First Ladies: Nancy Reagan, credited with raising the job to that of "Associate President"; Barbara Bush, who took a more traditional approach); and Hillary Rodham Clinton, widely billed as the person responsible for changing the job completely. Covering all thirty-nine women from Martha Washington to our current First Lady and including the daughters, daughters-in-law, and sisters of presidents who sometimes served as First Ladies, Betty Boyd Caroli explores the background, marriage, and accomplishments and failures in office of each woman. This remarkably diverse lot included Abigail Adams, whose "remember the ladies" became a twentieth-century feminist refrain; Edith Wilson, who alone controlled access to the President when he suffered a stroke; Jane Pierce, who prayed her husband would lose the election; Helen Taft, who insisted on living in the White House, although her husband would have preferred a judgeship; and Pat Nixon, who perfected what some have called "the robot image." They ranged in age from early 20's to late 60's; some received superb educations for their time, while others had little or no schooling. Including the courageous and adventurous, the emotionally unstable, the ambitious, and the reserved, these women often did not fit the traditional expectations of a presidential helpmate. Depicting how these women used the "magic wand" given to them, Caroli reveals not only how each First Lady changed the role, but also how the role changed in response to American culture. Because of their position, these women left remarkably complete records, and their stories offer us an insider's view not only of their lives but also of the history of American women in general.

Excerpt

Like many historians of women's records, I was not initially attracted to the prospect of writing a book on presidents' wives (Hillary Rodham Clinton had not yet made the kind of headlines that encouraged serious discussion of the job of First Lady.) What value could there be in studying a group of women united only by the fact that their husbands had held the same job? The 1970s and 1980s had finally focused attention on women who achieved on their own--who, then, would want to read about women who owed their space in history books to the men they married? If presidents' wives had remained "footnotes to history," perhaps that was what they deserved.

My curiosity was piqued when I looked at what had been published on the subject. Even a cursory reading of the standard reference work on women revealed a striking pattern among presidents' wives. Most of them came from social and economic backgrounds significantly superior to those of the men they married. Many of the women wed in spite of strenuous parental objection to their choices, and some of the men were younger than their brides. Recurring phrases hinted that the women assumed more control over their lives than I had imagined, and I began to wonder if I had mistakenly assigned them a free and easy ride alongside their prominent husbands. Several of the wives had eased the financial burdens of their households by managing family farms, teaching school, and working as secretaries after their marriages. Other information pointed to a pattern of early exposure to politics, and I was struck by the number of uncles, fathers, and grandfathers who had at one time held political office. Perhaps the women deserved a closer look.

As soon as I examined the women's unpublished letters, I was in-

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