The First Lady Reconsidered: Presidential Partner and Political Institution

By Watson, Robert P. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

The First Lady Reconsidered: Presidential Partner and Political Institution


Watson, Robert P., Presidential Studies Quarterly


It is sad and telling that the press and public alike are unaware that

Presidential wives since Abigail Adams have been wielding political

influence.

Edith Mayo, Director Smithsonian First Ladies Exhibit

Being first lady requires a woman to act ... as a mixture of queen, club

woman, and starlet. I

Lewis L. Gould, presidential scholar

The president's spouse has the potential to become an important

component of the contemporary presidency.

George Edwards and Stephen J. Wayne Presidential Leadership: Politics and Policy Making

A Case for the Study of the First Lady

She is widely considered to be one of the most powerful people in Washington, yet we know little about her responsibilities or her predecessors. Her name has routinely appeared atop the annual Gallup poll of America's most admired women in the world, but there exists little systematic study of what she has done to deserve this attention. It could be argued that she is the second most powerful person in the world, even though some scholars dismiss the effort to formalize a field of study of her as "trivial" or unworthy of serious academic attention. However, recent scholarship on the matter is beginning to reverse long-standing assumptions about her and is raising some provocative and important questions.(1) Yet, many of these questions remain largely unexamined yet alone answered. Indeed, she is the missing link in our study of the presidency and a strong case exists for formal study of the unknown institution" of the office of the president: the first lady.(2)

Scholarship over the past decade on the first lady reveals that many White House wives have had considerable influence on their husband's careers, decisions, and policies.(3) Considering the social forces limiting a woman's involvement in politics and influence in society and the fact that women could not even vote until 1920, the political activism and influence of several pre-twentieth century first ladies is remarkable. In fact, a new view of an "activist political partner" is emerging as possibly the rule rather than the exception for the female occupants of the White House.(4) There appear to be several reasons for the recent interest. In addition to the books written during the late 1980s--which are both reflective of the new interest and serve to further interest in the subject--there were several high-profile conferences organized or chaired by important women such as Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan. For example, in April 1984 there was a meeting at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, dedicated to the exploration of the lives and roles of first ladies. The controversy that surrounded Nancy Reagan because of her expensive and extravagant lifestyle and perceived influence over, and control of, President Reagan caused the media, general public, and politicians to question the nature of the role and extent of influence of the first lady.(5) Another factor which piqued the interest in first ladies was the availability of primary source material for studying the first ladies. More presidential libraries opened their holdings of the first lady's papers and White House social files.(6) More recently, the open advisory role played by Hillary Rodham Clinton and the fact that she has an office in the West Wing of the White House have produced criticism and public debate over the "proper" role of the first lady.

On one hand, the first lady is deserving of study simply because the institution has been a part of the presidency since the founding of the nation. Most presidents, after all, have been married and most of them have had their partner with them while serving in the White House. Only two bachelors were elected to the presidency: James Buchanan and Grover Cleveland, the latter marrying while in the White House. Only a few presidents have occupied the White House without their spouses. …

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