What happens when you become first lady?
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
BY Gary Brown

Nancy Cott, Harvard professor and authority on women’s history, gives the keynote address Monday at a National First Ladies’ Library symposium discussing the roles of wives of presidents.

Canton - Uncle Sam was wearing a petticote Monday in a decades-old cartoon handed out by historian Nancy Cott.

The 1914 editorial artwork lampooned woman suffrage, noted Cott, a Harvard professor and a scholar in American women’s history. But the cartoon also can be used to illustrate the uneasiness with which some critics have viewed the influential role first ladies have played throughout the history of the presidency.

“From the beginning of the United States, even before there was a White House, there was a national couple,” said Cott, keynote speaker at the symposium “As Many Feminine Voices,” on Monday at the National First Ladies’ Library Research Center.

“Martha Washington’s weekly receptions set a pattern for the public involvement of first ladies.”

Carl S. Anthony, an author of several books on first ladies, moderated the symposium. It was held with the exhibit, “Private Wives, Public Lives,” displayed in the lobby of the library.

The series of discussions brought in five biographers of first ladies, whose presentations discussed how the actions of first ladies reflected the beliefs and concerns of their generations of women.

All first ladies owe their position to “happenstance,” said Cott. They simply were married to men who were elected president, she explained.

But their response to their public position varied widely. “Not one of them can be described as typical,” Cott said.

Among those attending, said library director Martha Regula, were two representatives from the U.S. Mint, which she said is planning to mint gold first ladies coins.

A session that concluded the symposium looked at the roles of first ladies serving since Eleanor Roosevelt. Those presidential wives tended to be more active in social issues, said Anthony. He noted Betty Ford’s fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, Pat Nixon’s outspokenness about Roe v. Wade, Nancy Reagan’s attempts to educate schoolchildren against drug abuse, Barbara Bush’s work to reform the health-care system, and Laura Bush’s recent effort to help rebuild libraries destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Near the end of the symposium, Anthony challenged panelists to envision the role of future first ladies. Baker said she expected the influence of first ladies to continually increase, and even suggested that a cabinet post for first ladies should be created to legitimize their role and prevent them from having to whisper “pillow-talked” advice into their husbands’ ears.

“We criticize first ladies whenever they step outside the traditional role,” agreed Nancy Beck Young, a biographer of Lou Hoover. “We need to get over ourselves as a nation and get used to the idea that women can be smart and have something to say.”

And what if some future first lady isn’t a lady at all? What happens when the election of a woman president initiates the role of a first man?

“That will really cross-dress Uncle Sam,” Cott said.

The symposium, “As Many Feminine Voices,” is the first annual event on topics involving first ladies, said National First Ladies’ Library Research Center founder Mary Regula.

Monday morning’s discussion of “The Secret Lives of Private Wives” looked at first ladies who served their husbands in a more subdued manner, and featured scholars Jane Walter Venzke on Jane Pierce; Patricia Brady on Martha Washington; and Phyllis Lee Levin on Abigail Adams.

The afternoon session focused on first ladies who addressed contemporary issues. Levin discussed Edith Wilson; Jean H. Baker addressed Mary Lincoln; and Nancy Beck Young spoke about Lou Hoover.

C-SPAN taped the event to televise at an undisclosed date.

Did you know?
-- Martha Washington did not want her husband, George, to be president. She argued against it.

-- Abigail Adams wore a locket that contained, in the back, the plaited hairs of herself and her husband.

-- Jane Pierce, perpetually in a state of mourning as a first lady, thought that the death of her three sons was God’s way of allowing her husband to focus on the presidency.

-- Mary Todd Lincoln was so much a partner in her husband’s political life that when Abraham Lincoln got word that he was victorious, he hurried to his spouse and shouted, “Mary, Mary, we are elected!”

-- After her husband, Woodrow, suffered a stroke, Edith Wilson was adamant that his illness be kept from the public, and she participated in the cover-up so completely that her handwriting can be seen on many official papers.

-- Lou Hoover helped found a food club to make sure government clerks ate nutritiously. She also was national director of the Girl Scouts of America.

Note: Article courtesy of The Repository, Canton’s local newspaper