Life as a First Lady

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After this election, I started thinking about what life was like for the women who were married to the presidents—who have to endure the rigors of the election cycle and endless press coverage, but whose contributions are significantly overlooked by history.

These first ladies, all accomplished in their own right, shepherded their husbands into power, often at the cost of their own careers and ambitions. In First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, Kate Andersen Brower brings their personal stories to light and acknowledges their many and diverse contributions.  Brower gives readers an intimate glimpse of the more personal side of politics and what goes on within the confines of the White House (some of these stories may be familiar and can be found in her other book The Residence).

The public seldom acknowledges the vital role of the president’s spouse or the fact that this job has no clear job description.  Each First Lady’s personality dictates how far into the White House (and at times West Wing) they are willing to wade.  Some, like Rosalyn Carter and Hillary Clinton, sat alongside their husbands, crafting policy initiatives.  Others, like Jacqueline Kennedy and Barbara and Laura Bush, kept out of the daily goings-on at the White House and focused on causes that were relatively apolitical.

Photograph of all the living First Ladies in 1994.
First Ladies (from left to right) Nancy Reagan, Lady Bird Johnson, Hillary Clinton, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, and Barbara Bush at the “National Garden Gala, A Tribute to America’s First Ladies”, May 11, 1994.

 

Brower cautions the reader not to equate those women or those “safe” causes (a few examples:  reading, education, childhood obesity and mental health) with weakness or lack of grit.  They are in the unenviable position of being damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Underestimate them at your peril—the first ladies are no featherweights.  They are all highly educated, intelligent and fiercely loyal to their families.  They are also, as the author puts it, part of the “world’s most elite sorority.”

Throughout the book Brower weaves in anecdotes that demonstrate the vital role these women played in getting their husbands elected.  She shows that without them, it is unlikely the public would have been able to see these powerful men as anything more than detached and elite individuals.  After all, how big an ego must you possess to think that you should be the leader of the free world?  Brower shows how these women lend humanity to their formidable partners and help the public identify with them.

Brower shows how these women lend humanity to their formidable partners and help the public identify with them.

First ladies from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama are covered in this book.  While their relationships reached across party lines, some that you might feel would have been natural allies in fact did not like one another.  It’s no secret that Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton do not get along, but did you know that Michelle Obama and Laura Bush are friends? Or that Nancy Regan (often referred to as “Queen Nancy” in the book) did not have a very good relationship with any of the modern first ladies (with the exception of Jackie Kennedy)?

The only complaint I have about First Women is the lack of organization and the constant jumps in time.  Be prepared to concentrate, because at times it feels like the thread holding it together is about to unravel.  I was willing to forgive this in light of the fact that the book is based on more than 200 interviews with White House staffers from butlers to social secretaries to aides.  Clearly this former White House Press correspondent has done her research and the result is an enjoyable and highly entertaining read.

-Whitney Z.

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