Women’s History Month – First Ladies: American Heroes

In the above White House official photo, Former First Lady of the United States
Nancy Reagan (1921 – 2016)

With the passing of former First Lady Nancy Davis Reagan last week, the nation’s attention turned briefly to reflect on the role that America’s First Ladies have played in building our country — a position, I might add, that pays no salary. First Lady Pat Nixon once commented that, “Being first lady is the hardest unpaid job in the world.” And President Obama brought up the subject a few years ago, mentioning that First Lady Michelle Obama does not get paid for all her work on behalf of the Executive Branch and the country, especially her work to eliminate childhood obesity and encourage Americans to live healthier lives, which in turn can reduce workplace absenteeism and healthcare costs.

Sure, there are perks; but that’s not the same as earning a salary. The spouse of the U.S. President typically provides expertise in many areas as well as long hours of service. And considering the stress, criticism, hardships and real dangers First Ladies have often faced, hazard pay might be considered as well.

Martha Washington, the First “Lady”

It all began with beautiful, young and wealthy Virginian Martha Dandridge Custis who married Revolutionary War hero and future first President of the United States George Washington. In 1775 the Continental Army was formed with Commander-in-Chief Washington in Charge. With her husband playing a major role in the Revolutionary War, Martha’s life was in danger. In addition, during the War Martha made many long and difficult winter trips to be with her husband at the Army camps while fighting was halted due to the severe weather conditions.

Martha Washington was literate and well read, which was unusual for a woman of the period; but she had no instruction manual to guide her in her duties as the wife of the first President of the new nation. With the exception of being called “Lady Washington” in her new role, Martha and the President rejected the old European and British ceremonial customs. However, Martha’s creation of the position of hostess for social and official functions established the fundamental duties of the American Presidential spouse. In addition, she was responsible for managing the President’s residence as well as their own Mount Vernon estate, thus filling three positions and counting.

Abigail Adams, Feminist 

Abigail Smith was the smart, attractive and quite determined teenage daughter of a Massachusetts minister who fell in love with and wed her distant cousin, a brilliant Harvard graduate, struggling lawyer and future second President of the United States named John Adams. A self-taught and well read intellectual, Abigail was an outspoken advocate of independence, advising her husband, “Let us separate, they are unworthy to be our Brethren. Let us renounce them…let us beseech the almighty to blast their councils and bring to Nought all their devices.”

As the first of many feminist Presidential spouses, she also wrote to John, “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” Abigail’s words were prophetic, and when John was elected President, she continued to exercise her great wisdom and influence on her husband and became his close political adviser.

Dolley Madison, Hostess and Hero 

North Carolinian Dolley Payne Todd was a widow when she married future fourth President of the U.S. James Madison (called “the Father of the Constitution”). Dolley Madison was an extremely popular Washington hostess and considered the toast of the town, a fact that contributed to her husband winning the Presidency. To mark her husband’s inauguration, Dolley was asked to sponsor a dinner and dance; thus, the custom of the inaugural ball was established. And it was Dolley who inspired the term “First Lady.”

During the War of 1812, as the British Army advanced on Washington, D.C., President Madison met with his generals on the battlefield. Before he left he told Dolley to gather all important documents and be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. The next day the British Army set fire to the city as they marched toward Pennsylvania Avenue to destroy the Presidential Mansion. Dolley is credited with taking charge and evacuating the staff and slaves along with the portrait of President Washington and any other valuables that could be grabbed quickly. Earlier the same day Dolley wrote to her sister, “And now, dear sister, I must leave this house or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it by filling up the road I am directed to take.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, Presidential Surrogate 

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City to a wealthy socially and politically connected family; she was home schooled and educated in Italy and England. Like Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt was a distant cousin of her husband and future 32nd President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR); even before their marriage they shared the same family name of Roosevelt. Eleanor and Franklin were intellectual equals and held similar political views. When her husband contracted polio, Eleanor became his political surrogate, transforming a traditional marriage into one of the great political partnerships of the 20th century.

As First Lady, Eleanor influenced her husband in areas of civil rights and other important issues, traveled extensively and learned firsthand the plight of citizens during the Great Depression and worked with the Red Cross to help wounded and shell-shocked soldiers during WWII. She was instrumental in FDR’s election to an unprecedented third term of office, after which he went on to win a fourth. After his death, Eleanor continued to be influential, sitting on the board of the NAACP, heading the United Nations Human Rights Commission and writing a newspaper column. She never stopped fighting for human equality and rights.

Jackie Kennedy, White House Restorer and International Ambassador  

Jacqueline Bouvier (“Jackie”) was born in Southampton, Long Island, New York to a prominent New York family. She was highly educated, having attended top schools in New York and Paris. Jackie met future 35th President John Kennedy when she was working as the “Inquiring Camera Girl,” for the Washington Times-Herald, and they married in 1953. As First Lady, Jackie’s style captured the imagination of American women, who emulated her look and fashions, especially her iconic pillbox hat. Her restoration and television broadcast tour of the White House brought a renewed interest in American history and national pride. As Jackie traveled with the President she used her linguistic abilities in French and Spanish to build valuable international relationships.

Jackie was sitting next to her husband in a motorcade when he was shot with an assassin’s bullets. Covered in blood, she stood next to Vice President Lyndon Johnson as he was sworn in as the next President. Thus, Jackie’s most enduring contribution was her exemplary dignity and courage in the face of a personal and national tragedy. Putting her own grief aside, she helped a devastated nation heal and carry on.

Pat Nixon – Personal Representative

Thelma Catherine Ryan (called “Pat,” because she was born the night before St. Patrick’s Day) was born in Nevada and grew up in California, where she met and in 1940 married future 37th President Richard Nixon. Before she became First Lady, Pat worked in an array of positions, including farmer, clerk, custodian, secretary, pharmacy manager and acting extra and economist. As First Lady, Pat traveled more than any other up to that time, reaching out to citizens and visiting nations around the world, including a combat zone in Vietnam, as Personal Representative of the President.

Pat also promoted volunteerism, made the White House more accessible to the general public and served on the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. She was pro-choice, favored the Equal Rights Amendment, and wanted to see a women appointed to the Supreme Court. Finally, she faced with dignity and grace the resignation of her husband from the Presidency in the face of the Watergate scandal and the threat of impeachment. The aftermath of her husband’s Presidency took a toll on Pat Nixon’s health. A pragmatist and stoic to the end, this often misunderstood and underappreciated First Lady did what she had to do for her family and country, despite the personal high cost. As she once said, “I do or die, but I never cancel out.”

Betty Ford – Free Spirit and Inspiration

Elizabeth Ann Bloomer Warren (“Betty”) was born in Chicago and grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She worked as a John Roberts Powers model and Martha Graham dancer. Betty was divorced from her first husband, William Warren, when she met the future 38th President, Gerald Ford; they were married in 1948 following his election to the U.S. House of Representatives. As Vice President, when President Nixon resigned Gerald Ford succeeded him and Betty Ford became First Lady at a very difficult time. She also wondered why the position was unpaid.

As First Lady, Betty was an individual, introducing disco to the White House, choosing “First Mama” for her CB radio handle,” speaking her mind about her support of the ERA and the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade. She freely expressed her practical views on premarital sex and recreational drug use. But it was the way she dealt with her personal health issues for which she will be remembered. Betty Ford likely saved millions of lives by her openness about her breast cancer and mastectomy and her struggle with prescription drug and alcohol addiction. After leaving the White House the not-for-profit Betty Ford Center at Rancho Mirage, California, opened. Over the years the famous and not-so-famous have passed through it doors, in keeping with Betty Ford’s populist approach and legacy.

Nancy Reagan – Gatekeeper and Crusader

Nancy Davis was born in New York City and grew up in Maryland and Chicago. She attended Smith College in Massachusetts where she majored in the dramatic arts. Later she moved to California where she signed a contract with MGM. Her last film was Hellcats of the Navy with future 40th President Ronald Reagan; Nancy and “Ronnie” were married in 1952.

As First Lady, Nancy Reagan become an icon of fashion and redecorated and purchased new china for the White House. But during the Reagan White House years the nation’s economy was not doing well and Nancy’s acceptance of gifts of clothing, jewelry and other items from designers not only was an ethics violation but a public relations disaster. She addressed the criticism by poking fun at herself at the 1982 Gridiron Dinner.

Nancy also became known for her efforts to help young people avoid drug addiction. Her “Just Say No” campaign was controversial, however; some have criticized it for being ineffective and others have claimed that it helped to reduce drug use and addiction.

Nancy Regan’s most powerful legacy is her devotion to her husband. After the assassination attempt on the President, Nancy assumed management of his schedule and became his fierce gatekeeper. After they left office following his second term, Ronald Reagan announced that he had Alzheimer’s, prompting Nancy to take on what might have been her most important mission: that of promoting stem cell research. She praised President Obama for overturning restrictions on the research.

A Salary for First Ladies — or First Laddies?

Time and again, First Ladies have proved that they are not afraid to think for themselves or follow their beliefs on issues of great importance to them, even if it means disagreeing with their President-husbands. They have wielded great influence over their spouses, voters, Congress and the world. They have filled the roles of social director, hostess, public relations specialist, event planner, diplomat and ambassador-at-large, and many take on additional roles serving on committees, spearheading major projects in health, education, economic development and other areas. Throughout history, First Ladies have put their lives on hold and on the line to serve their country at the sides of their husbands. Today a First Lady might also have to suspend her own career or quit a good paying job to fulfill this important role.

And modern times have brought the strong possibility that a former First Lady will become the next President and Commander-in-Chief herself, making her spouse the First Laddie. If so, more women are sure to follow. But will men be as willing to give up their day jobs and forego their incomes to fulfill the role of Presidential spouse? Or will they negotiate hard for spousal compensation packages?

We shall see.

Until next time,


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