The Idea of the First Lady: Truth and Reality

January 23, 2020

992px-Dolley_MadisonWIH Reporter: Welcome to The Women’s Institute, Dr. Young. We are looking forward to your 6-week class  The Idea of the First Lady  Americans have an infatuation with our first ladies. The china they pick, the policy platform they advocate, and the style of clothes they wear tends to set trends while they are in the White House. You have broken down the role of first lady into categories—Entertainer, Diplomat and Political Figure, Policy Activist, Media Personality, Mothers, and Cultural Leaders. This seems a lot to ask of one role. Historically, how did these expectations come about and are they realistic? 

Young: The thing about the first lady is that the position is not really codified. The first lady is not mentioned in the Constitution, and the legislation pertaining to the post mostly has to do with appropriations to fund the operations of the East Wing. As such, the work of the first lady has been determined by the people who have filled the role with some women being more activist than others, some more involved with cultural issues than others, and some more obviously trend-setters than others. The various roles that I want to explore in this course and in the book I am writing, have evolved over time. While it would not necessarily be realistic to expect one person to accomplish all these tasks, the first lady is no longer just one person. The East Wing bureaucracy has grown tremendously over the past century, meaning that the first lady has a large staff to assist with her work.

WIH Reporter: You are the author of several books on various political figures, you are currently working on a book that will address some of the aspects of this class. How did you come up with this idea?

Young: My book project on the idea of the first lady grew out of my biographical work on Lou Henry Hoover. I found Hoover to be a transitional figure to a more modern form of first lady activism. To test my ideas, I looked for literature that explored the institution of the first lady beyond the biographies of the individual women who had held the position. There was no such literature. At that point in the late 1990s the field had not advanced at all beyond biography. Some work has since been done, but nothing as encompassing as what I am undertaking. So, the short answer to your question is that I wanted to read a book that looks beyond biography. Finding none, I decided the only solution was to write one myself.

WIH Reporter: What is something that would surprise us to know about a first lady? And, give us an example of a first lady who was placed into a role that she was uncomfortable with.

Young: In answer to your first question one former first lady, Julia Gardiner Tyler supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. So did her husband, former president John Tyler, who was elected to the Confederate Congress. Perhaps two of the most politically savvy 20th century first ladies—Eleanor Roosevelt and Lady Bird Johnson—were both shy public speakers and reticent to engage in politics earlier in their lives. They both had outgrown their hesitancies about public engagement long before they were in the White House, but this example is still illustrative. Historically, first ladies have not necessarily pursued the power and public role that comes with life in the White House, so an argument can be made that none of the women in the role have been fully prepared for what came their way.

WIH Reporter: You have expressed that the focus of this class will not be biographical in nature but will examine the first lady as an institution. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Young: Numerous academics have written about the presidency as an institution, but almost none have explored first ladies from this perspective. Institutional studies allow for analyzing change over time, a key historical concept that cannot be evaluated effectively from biographical methods. When considering the institution of the first lady, discrete biography does not work as a methodology because it does not offer the longer, comparative view needed to probe why and how the role of the first lady has changed. That said, biography cannot be completely abandoned. In my research and in this course, I use biography to show the evolution of how presidential spouses have defined their work and how they have been assessed by the public.

WIH Reporter: What most excites you about this class? Also, in an attempt to know you better, what books have you recently read or are reading?

Young: I look forward to a classroom where everyone has chosen to be there and where everyone embraces the life of the mind, characteristics not always applicable to the college classroom. Right now, I’ve got a stack of books on my desk that I’m reading in preparation for my classes this semester and another stack pertaining to my various research projects.  The one I’m most excited about, though, is Sarah Broom’s debut book, The Yellow House, which is getting a lot of buzz. Broom merges genres in this book that tells us the history of New Orleans and of the United States by looking at one house over the past half century.  I’ve just started reading, and if I can turn off impeachment news in the evenings I think I will be finished before the end of the month!

The Idea of the First Lady with Dr. Nancy Beck Young meets for 6 weeks beginning Tuesday, February 4 at 1:00. Register today. 

Image: Dolley Madison was said to be the first president’s wife to be referred to as “First Lady.”