This has not been the best of weeks for me, primarily because I had a fall early in the week, at home, of course, where so many falls take place. While I’ve been fretting over my aching muscles and experimenting with how to get my meals ready without putting too much strain on my sore leg, I haven’t had much time to think about a blog post.
Then I read an article about Melania Trump in the New York Times which set my mind to considering a subject I wrote about the changing roles of first ladies back in 2016.
Two of the most watched speeches of the conventions were those given by Michele Obama, our popular First Lady, and by Melania Trump, who aspires to be a first lady. Our Founding Fathers would be aghast if they knew that candidates wives were actually appearing in public and speaking on behalf of their parties and their husbands roles in politics.
Like so many other revolutions in American politics, Eleanor Roosevelt was a pioneer in opening the way for wives to speak at nominating conventions. She surprised everyone by appearing on the podium at the 1940 Democratic Convention in Chicago to urge delegates to nominate her husband, Franklin. As the New York Times reported:
“Eight years after her husband shattered the tradition of the non-appearance of Presidential candidates before the conventions which nominated them, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the same hall and on the same platform, established another tonight, the first wife of a President or nominee ever to address a major political party conclave.”
The Times went on to report that the First Lady spoke with unusual gravity, both at the press conference when she arrived in Chicago on a chartered plane, and in the convention hall. Franklin Roosevelt had announced earlier that he did not want to run again, and Eleanor Roosevelt said she was not surprised at this because “I cannot imagine in the present state of the world, why anyone would want to carry such a burden…” Her reaction when told that her own name had been placed in nomination for the Vice Presidency was to laugh and say. “I could imagine nothing more foolish or less wanted.” Her speech, when it came, was forceful and the delegates went on to nominate Franklin Roosevelt by acclamation for an historic third term as President.
Eleanor Roosevelt, like both Michele Obama and Melania Trump…could not escape press comments on her clothes. “Her traveling suit was a tailored ensemble of navy cloth coat with long lapels of Eleanor blue, with a soft crepe dress beneath in the same shade. Her hat was a small one of navy straw in a modified beret type…” At least the newspaper did not report on her hair style or the height of the heels of her shoes.
Time has moved on since 2016, although Melania Trump, still gets many comments on her clothes and even on the height of her heels, other changes are being made. Our new first lady chooses not to be completely buried in the shadow of her husband any more than Eleanor Roosevelt or Michele Obama were. She has chosen a different route to independence. She did not move into the White House immediately after the inauguration, and she has chosen not to appear with her husband or travel with him as often as most other first ladies have done. Instead she pursues her own interests and has not been a fierce political supporter.
I urge you to read Kate Andersen Brower’s column “The Quiet Radicalism of Melania Trump” and think about the changes that are coming to the First Lady role in American politics. Sometimes long lasting changes occur without our even noticing. And sometimes they are made by the people we would least expect to make them.
With the presidential inauguration scheduled for Friday of this week, there has been much speculation about what the new first family in the White House will be like.
Melania Trump will step into the role of first lady, although she has said that she will not move into the White House until at least the end of her young son’s school term. She will remain living at Trump Tower in New York City.
People have become so accustomed to having a First Lady in the White House that speculation immediately started about who would fill that role until Mrs. Trump moves to Washington. Ivanka Trump is the name that comes to mind as the most likely White House hostess during the times when Melania Trump is not in residence. It wouldn’t be the first time someone other than the president’s wife filled that job—daughters, nieces and daughters-in-law have served in previous administrations.
The role of First Lady has not always been as important as it is now. In the early days of the Republic, serving as hostess as the President’s dinners was not a time-consuming task. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that people even adopted the title First Lady or paid much attention to the woman besides the president. Harriet Lane changed all that.
When James Buchanan, our only bachelor president, was inaugurated in 1857, his orphaned niece Harriet Lane became his official hostess. At 26, she was one of the youngest first ladies and her youth and good looks attracted attention. When she altered her Inaugural Ball gown by lowering the neckline two-and-a-half inches, she became a
fashion leader. Her clothes and her congeniality made her the Jackie Kennedy of the 19th century and the first really modern First Ladies. Like Mrs. Kennedy, she wanted to make the White House a cultural center. She invited artists and musicians to entertain there and also advocated for the rights of Native Americans on reservations.
During the bitterly divided years preceding the Civil War, entertaining in the White House required a genius for arranging dinners so that sworn enemies would not have to sit together or encounter each other in small groups. Harriet Lane must have had that genius because she kept the White House running smoothly up until the time that her uncle left office. By that time seven states had seceded from the Union and the election of Abraham Lincoln precipitated the Civil War. After leaving the White House, Harriet Lane went on to marry, to have two children who died young, and then to establish a home for invalid children at Johns Hopkins University and to become an art collector and benefactor to the Smithsonian Institution.
From the stately Martha Washington, who was often called “Lady Washington”, to the youthful Harriet Lane who brought glamour to the position, the activist Eleanor Roosevelt who acted as her husband’s eyes and ears around the country, the quiet Bess Truman who disliked White House duties, America has had a wide variety of first ladies. Whether wives, nieces, or daughters they have shaped a role which has become more important over the years. Many people will be watching as a new family will be moving into the White House and shaping the activities of this presidency.
Seeing a new play while it is still in preview, before any reviews have appeared, is always fun for me. Without having anyone else’s judgment to guide me, I can pretend to be a Broadway critic on opening night. A few days ago I had a chance to do that while I was in New York for the weekend—not on Broadway but at the Public Theater downtown where so many legendary plays have opened.
This time my chance came with a new musical, First Daughter Suite, by Michael John LaChiusa, which is based on the lives of the wives and daughters of recent U.S. presidents. The four scenes feature Pat Nixon and her daughters Julie and Tricia; Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter with daughters Susan Ford and Amy Carter; Nancy Reagan with daughter Patti Davis; and finally Barbara Bush and Laura Bush with the ghost of Barbara’s daughter Robin, who died as a child. The production is superb, the music charming and appropriate, and the acting spectacular. Almost all of the actors play two roles and playing two such different women as Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford during one performance, as Alison Fraser does, is an amazing feat. Each of the performers inhabits her role with remarkable grace and complete conviction.
What lingers with me still, several days after I saw the show, are questions about how much reality the show reflects. The six president’s wives portrayed are familiar to most of us through the immense publicity they received during their husband’s campaigns and time in office. Each of them took on the difficult job of serving as first lady and met the requirements of not causing a public crisis or major embarrassment despite the glare of publicity goes along with the presidency these days. They must be both tough and capable; yet somehow in this play they come across as victims. The White House is regarded almost as a prison that both mothers and daughters would like to escape.
None of the women portrayed in this play show much interest in any of the policies their husbands were pursuing, yet earlier first ladies frequently influenced, and by some account dominated, their husband’s choices of positions and personnel. If we look back at history, even the quietest first ladies were active participants in the business of government.
Abigail Adams was called “Mrs. President” by some of John Adams’s staff because she was so active in politics and so influence with her husband.
- Florence Harding, the long-forgotten wife of Warren Harding, was reported to have written her husband’s inauguration speech and to have dictated his selection of cabinet members
- Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, was a leading adviser to her husband and strongly influenced his ideas and his policies.
I am pretty sure that the first ladies portrayed in First Daughter Suite were not only observers, much less victims, of their husband’s actions. Although First Daughter Suite gives us a fascinating glimpse of life in the White House, I’m still waiting for a play that will show us a more rounded portrait of the women
who have lived there.