Tag Archives: first ladies

Women of the White House

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.

white_house_1846

First known photo of White House 1846

melania-trump

Melania Trump

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

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Harriet Lane

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.

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First Ladies and how they’ve changed

Playbill_edited-1Seeing 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

    Abigail Adams

    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

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    Florence Haarding

  • 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

Is this the face for the new $20 bill?

Eleanor Roosevelt

who have lived there.

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