First ladies uniquely shape US history

Eleanor Roosevelt, celebrating her 60th birthday, broadcasts from the White House in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, 1944. Photo: The Associated Press
By Michael R. Malone

Eleanor Roosevelt, celebrating her 60th birthday, broadcasts from the White House in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11, 1944. Photo: The Associated Press

First ladies uniquely shape US history

By Michael R. Malone
Despite the constraints of societal mores and complex family dynamics, a number of presidents’ wives have left a lasting impact on the country, advancing women’s rights and other signature causes while reflecting the changing dimensions of women’s power and potential.

Marriages and familial responsibilities are dynamic and complex. Politics are by nature messy. Combine the two at the uber-sophisticated level of the U.S. president and “his”—at least to this point— partner, and we can only begin to appreciate the challenges faced by first ladies. 

Yet Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama through their charisma, commitment, and courage have left an indelible imprint on our society, according to history and law experts who highlighted the contributions of these first ladies. 

“The overlap of the president’s role and the wife’s unofficial role as the so-called ‘first lady’ is extraordinarily complicated,” said Frances Hill, a constitutional law expert at the University of Miami School of Law. “What we have always had is the intersection of the presidency with the operation of the family—and that can get dicey.” 

Hill shared that, while in her third year of law school, she experienced the complexities firsthand when her husband ran for public office. “It was to a much lesser degree but was still eye-opening in the sense of how women in conjugal roles fit into these political efforts,” she said. 

“There is a great deal of complexity that we are never meant to see and yet sometimes get glimpses of,” she pointed out. “Some first ladies have made extraordinary contributions; I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I believe in women’s prescribed gender limited roles—women can fulfill any role in our society, including president of the United States.” 

Though Martha Washington launched the role, the earliest reference to “first lady” appears in the mid-19th century, possibly first pronounced by President Zachary Taylor in his eulogy of Dolley Madison, wife to James Madison, the fourth U.S. president. 

In the modern era, Hill referred to Kennedy Onassis as setting a new bar for first ladies. 

“Jackie Kennedy’s work in restoring the sense of the White House as a place in history, and not just an office building with a family residency attached, which it had become, was remarkable,” Hill said. “As far as we know, she did not wish to—and probably was not allowed to—play much of a role in public policy, but anyone who was alive at that time remembers her as an absolutely different type of presidential wife—very young, very glamorous, and she spoke beautiful French.” 

Hill suggested that first ladies in the modern era have in some ways modeled themselves on Kennedy Onassis. 

Both Hill and Max Fraser, an assistant professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences, cited the monumental contributions of Eleanor Roosevelt in terms of advancing policies that benefited women and working class Americans, at an especially pivotal time in U.S. history—the Great Depression and the post-war years. 

“Eleanor Roosevelt was unusually involved in the crafting and implementing of a number of the key social programs and provisions that her husband put into place in response to the Great Depression—a battery of new programs that helped to guarantee working class security to working Americans and to alleviate the economic suffering of the moment,” said Fraser, a scholar of 20th century U.S. labor, cultural, and political history. 

Fraser noted that prior to her husband assuming the presidency, both Eleanor and Franklin were both tremendously active in progressive era reform work. 

“As a personage of the moment and a woman in politics in the immediate lead up and aftermath to the passage of the suffrage amendment in 1920, Eleanor witnessed this sea change in the political landscape in terms of the equal and increasingly leadership roles that women could play,” Fraser explained, “a change she reflected in her own political engagement as something beyond a helpmate or ceremonial figure alongside the president.” 

Fraser emphasized FDR’s extraordinary efforts to restore confidence to the nation during the Depression years, using the radio as a new communication medium to speak directly to the people. Those “fireside chats” created Roosevelt as a “publicly accessible, sympathetic, transparent, and relatable figure,” he said. 

“And Eleanor was very much a part of that in that she became a public figure, like the president, of reassurance, compassion, and of proactive consideration for the struggling masses during this moment of unequalled economic crisis in our history,” Fraser added. 

Fraser listed another historical particularity of the Depression era—that millions of letters were delivered to the White House from those suffering around the country, often requesting personal assistance. 

“Women and children particularly wrote to Eleanor, recognizing in her a fellow sympathetic wife and mother during a time when mothers struggled to clothe their children, put food on the table, manage the loss of homes, of income, and more,” he said. “There was a great deal of intimacy in her relationship as represented by this back-and-forth communication. Many saw Eleanor as a relatable figure to whom they turned to for help and reassurance and for comfort during a moment of extraordinary crisis.” 

Additionally, Fraser pointed to Roosevelt’s role as a delegate to the United Nations from 1945-1953. “Notably as chair of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Eleanor became a major political and public figure symbolizing the United States’ commitment to the emerging post-war system of global governance, based on the principles of national self-determination, human rights, and cooperation in global affairs,” he said. 

As a major political figure in history, Fraser suggested only Hillary Clinton “as a meaningful comparison,” in that Clinton also brought extraordinary expertise to the White House together with her husband and, given her efforts—albeit failed—to enact health care legislation in the 1990s. 

“Hillary was, of course, a focal point of discussion, debate, disagreement—and also historic breakthroughs,” said Hill. “When she went to China in her pink suit and spoke about the rights of women at that international women’s conference, women were cheering for her.” 

But Clinton’s impact as first lady was undermined because the Clintons’ life became so complicated. “Investigation after investigation, and incredible levels of tension because the world was changing and the partisan divides were intensifying,” said Hill. 

Hill pointed to Michelle Obama as “the most successful modern first lady.” 

“Both Michelle and Barack were two Harvard law school graduates—neither of whom was a shrinking violet to be sure—so it was bound to be interesting,” Hill said. “Though Michelle didn’t want Barack running for office, once he was and then, when he was elected, she was there defining her role.” 

Hill indicated that the Obamas had “the immense good fortune” that Michelle’s mother lived in the White House with them, so that their then quite young daughters had someone they loved who was always there with them. 

“The reason Michelle Obama was so notable and successful is that she just did a lot of things that she believed in, such as growing vegetables in the school garden with children from the D.C. area to promote nutrition—which was such a winning thing to do,” Hill said. “All the things that she became engaged in, she really became engaged.” 

The same is true of the current first lady, Jill Biden, Hill ventured, adding that Biden might benefit—in the sense of meeting less resistance for her advocacy—because of her age. 

“She has a doctorate in education and has served notice that she will continue to teach at the community college, which I think is a first,” Hill said. 

“Yet you have to understand the first lady in terms of the overlapping roles and the limits that the society and the societal norms play and the cost that a president and the first lady can pay for trying to broaden those boundaries,” Hill said. “Being a bit older, Ms. Biden might generate less controversy and be somewhat less threatening—she doesn’t seem to be a very threatening person, but she is out there talking to people about what she believes in.”