First Ladies Club

(Credit: Urbanite)

Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower

By Linda Perney

Special to amNewYork

At first, nobody even knew what to call them. Over the years, the titles switched from Lady Washington, Presidentress, Queen Dolley — for Dolley Madison — and Mrs. President, for Mary Todd Lincoln.

Today we know them as first ladies — but even that title didn’t sit well with the most glamorous of them all. After instructing the White House telephone operators to refer to her only as “Mrs. Kennedy,” Jacqueline Kennedy remarked: “The one thing I do not want to be called is ‘first lady.’ It sounds like a saddle horse.”

As Michelle Obama, 44, prepares to move into the White House, comparisons between the Kennedys and the Obamas have been rife: two stylish, sophisticated couples, with young children, each president representing a firm break with the past: Kennedy as the first Catholic to be elected, Obama as the first African American.

Indeed, Sasha Obama, 7, will be the youngest White House occupant since Caroline and John-John. And although the Harvard-educated lawyer has vowed that her first responsibility is being “mom-in-chief,” Michelle Obama is a formidable presence in her own right.Family first

The Obamas are the latest link in a chain of first families that have come to symbolize the country’s aspirations. At the turn of the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt, his wife, Edith, and his six children were “America’s Family.” The problem for them was: How much publicity was too much?

Much to Edith Roosevelt’s dismay their young sons were photographed with their pets, and the president’s eldest daughter became “Princess Alice,” with her smoking and horse betting. When asked about Alice’s behavior, TR responded: “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”

Jacqueline Kennedy declared her children off-limits to photographers, but the president, aware of their charm, often set up photo-ops while she was away.

The first lady’s changing role

For much of history, first ladies stayed out of politics, although many functioned as private advisors.

Among the exceptions: Mary Lincoln — one of the most reviled of the first spouses — held a séance in the White House and brought in mediums and mystics, and her detractors claimed she interfered in the president’s business.

In the 1980s, Nancy Reagan, left, famously consulted an astrologer and her meddling “began to interfere with the normal conduct of the presidency,” according to her husband’s chief of staff, Donald Regan.

The traditional side of the first lady’s role was perfected by Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman — neither of whom talked much to the press.

Bess once said that “a woman’s place in public is to sit beside her husband and be sure her hat is on straight.”

Laura Bush, who once described herself as ‘“George’s echo,”’ falls into that niche, says Catherine Allgord, visiting professor of history at California’s Claremont McKenna College. And in many ways, so did Nancy Reagan.

“The Reagans were very much in love, but there’s a difference between love and partnership. I’m quite sure Nancy Reagan would never have called herself Reagan’s partner,” Allgord says.

If anyone created the mystique of the first lady, it probably was Dolley Madison, Allgord said. “She pioneered the role of the charismatic figure in her husband’s administration” from 1809 to 1817.

Both of Woodrow Wilson’s wives were activists. The first, Ellen, took on the project of improving Washington’s black slums. The second Mrs. Wilson was accused of “running the country” when her husband suffered a stroke during his second term.

During the Depression, Eleanor Roosevelt traveled the country as the eyes and ears of her husband, who was in a wheelchair. “She is our yardstick,” says Myra Gutin, a historian and professor of communications at Rider University. “She’s the one we measure our first ladies by.”

Yet, for all her political acumen the world she lived in would never have accepted her as a candidate for the presidency in her own right.

All that changed with Hillary Clinton in the 1990s. “Like it or not,” says Allgord. “A new brand of first lady emerged with Clinton, and it’s something that we have to expect — having a first lady who could go on to become a public servant.”

Mamie Eisenhower celebrates her 63rd birthday in 1959.

Tags: politics , michelle obama , barack obama , first ladies. history , teddy roosevelt

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