However, few people and relatively few scholars have looked beyond the glitter and pomp of the White House to critically analyze the office of First Lady.
The term First Lady is relatively new. The Dictionary of American History notes that it was first applied to Lucy Webb Hayes upon her husband's inauguration in 1877, but it did not come into general use until 1911. At that time, Charles F. Nirdlinger's play about Dolly Madison, The First Lady of the Land, was produced, and the new designation for the president's wife was popularized. 4
The First Lady occupies a unique position. She is not an elected official, she draws no salary, and there is no written description of her duties. Indeed, she has no status in official Washington. The Congressional Directory (first published in 1834), a guide listing the names of all of the people working in official Washington, did not mention the First Lady until the edition of March 1965. 5 The first acknowledgment of a member of the First Lady's staff actually preceded that of the First Lady by twelve years, when Mary Jane McCaffree was listed as Acting Secretary to the Wife of the President in 1953. 6 Today the First Lady finds herself performing the functions of White House hostess, occasional presidential surrogate, campaigner, and advocate for certain positions or causes. She is often viewed as a visible symbol of her husband's administration. There is nothing a First Lady must do, but much she is expected to accomplish.
Those who study First Ladies realize that there is a major problem inherent within the topic. There is no standard methodology for studying these women. In the past (and even currently), books about First Ladies were either "kiss- and-tell" treatises or general biographical studies. More ambitious writers attempted to examine the lives of all the First Ladies chronologically. As Lewis L. Gould has observed, to study all the First Ladies is to study all of American history. 7 The resulting works were often too lacking in detail or perspective to be of much use. Moreover, change has not occurred chronologically in the First Lady's role. In an article entitled "First Ladies," Gould suggests a new approach and looks at presidential wives as political celebrities. 8
It is the contention of this book that communication may offer the best vantage point from which to scrutinize the First Lady of the United States. By analyzing the communication activities of the President's wife--the speeches, radio and television broadcasts, interviews, press conferences, and magazine and newspaper articles written by the First Lady--one is able to best understand and appreciate the changes that have taken place over sixty years. There is no dearth of material about the First Lady, but none of it evaluates the First Ladies' perceptions of their responsibilities as communicators or the impact of their actions.
A systematic evaluation of the twelve First Ladies since suffrage shows that these presidential wives have assumed one of three distinct stances as public communicators. Florence Harding, Grace Coolidge, Bess Truman, and Mamie Eisenhower perceived their role in strictly ceremonial terms. These social hostesses and ceremonial presences had extremely limited contact with the public, and devoted little if any thought to communicating their ideas to the country.