The term "first lady" didn't make it into a dictionary until 1935. The earliest presidents' wives were called "Presidentress" or "Mrs. President," or often were simply ignored. Dolley Madison was the first to bear the title (in a play long after her death). Jacqueline Kennedy forbade her staff to ever use the appelation, reportedly deeming the term more appropriate for a saddle horse. Today, for better or worse, the term and the institution of First Lady are integral--though still evolving--aspects of our political and cultural landscape, and this is the first full treatment of the subject. Covering all 37 women from Martha Washington to Nancy Reagan (counting is complicated by the fact that daughters, daughters-in-law, and sisters of presidents were sometimes pressed into service), the book shows how the role of First Lady was transformed from ceremonial backdrop at best to sustantive world figure. Along the way, the book intoroduces a remarkable cast of characters, many not at all what one would expect of a presidential help-mate. From Abigail Adams, whose "remember the ladies" became a twentieth century feminist refrain, to Edith Wilson, who alone controlled access to the President when he had suffered a stroke; from Jane Pierce who used her health as an a excuse for doing very little to Pat Nixon who perfected what some have call "the robot image," the Presidents' wives have been a very diverse group with vastly differing attitudes toward their role. They ranged in age from early 20s the late 60s. Some were superbly educated for their time; others, poorly schooled. Some were courageous and adventuresome; a few were emotionally unstable. Some were ambitious; others despised the public arena. A suprising number were superior to their husbands socially and economically. Because of their position, they left remarkably complete records, and their stories offer us a window to view not only this particular sorority of women--holders of what sociologists now call "derivative power"--but also American women in general.
About the Author
Betty Boyd Caroli is Profesor of History at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, and co-author of Today's Immigrants, Their Stories.