“Petticoat Government”


I am informed that whenever Rush Limbaugh has cause to mention Hillary Rodham Clinton, he cues in “Hail to the Chief” as background music. There’s nothing like subtlety. But at least Limbaugh isn’t solemn in the style of a columnist I recently read in my local paper who gravely weighed the constitutional effects of what he called, with a straight face, our “co-Presidency.”

It had a familiar ring to it. Only recently I saw a collection of campaign memorabilia featuring a 1936 or 1940 lapel button that proclaimed, “We don’t want Eleanor, either.”

Mrs. Clinton may take consolation, if she needs any, in knowing that First Ladies have always had a hard time defining their roles in the public eye, and they have often been convenient targets for critics of the Presidents to whom they were married. Some have tried to hide from the country’s gaze, some have knowingly courted popularity for their own and their husband’s sakes, and some have boldly confronted the hostile tide. But the common denominator among those most heartily trashed was that they were, in a word, uppity.

Mrs. Roosevelt was treated with special roughness because she was, up to then, the worst offender in the matter of openly being her own person. That is confirmed in the evidence mustered by Betty Boyd Caroli in a lively, well-researched, and rewarding book entitled First Ladies , published by Oxford University Press in 1987.

Caroli notes that the term itself (detested by some of its holders) is an awkward one, reflecting the dual status of the President who is simultaneously head of state and yet a “mere” citizen temporarily in office by vote of his equals. Both he and his wife serve clashing symbolic functions: they must be as dignified as royalty, while remaining just folks. But the First Lady has special additional problems, well illustrated by the story of the first three.


Martha Washington, no less than George, wrestled for eight years with the dilemma of what was proper etiquette for the republican “court.” But whether by choice or nature, she was quiet about affairs of state.

Abigail Adams was not so. She made no secret of her sharp views on her husband John’s enemies among the Jeffersonian Republicans, which led one of them, Albert Gallatin, to denounce her by saying: “She is Mrs. President not of the United States but of a faction. … It is not right.” (John compounded the offense by respecting her opinions.) Dolley Madison, who served as chief hostess for the third President, Thomas Jefferson (a widower), and the fourth (her own “Jemmy”), learned the ropes quickly. She arranged for dinners and parties in which she artfully intermingled and charmed political leaders whom the Presidents wanted to conciliate or bring together. Since this kind of politicking was within a woman’s sphere, her popularity did not suffer.

First Ladies from 1821 to 1845 were either nonexistent—Jackson and Van Buren were widowers—or self-effacing. But James Folk’s wife, Sarah (he served from 1845 to 1849), was an exception to the fast-hardening rule of wifely meekness. She had, her husband wrote, “a great deal of spice and more independence of judgment than was fitting in one woman.” Before his election she declared, “If I get to the White House … I will neither keep house nor make butter.” She seems to have escaped vigorous criticism, however, possibly because Polk himself was so strong-minded and successful in achieving his presidential objectives that no one could suspect him of the sin of being influenced by her.

Mary Todd Lincoln, on the other hand, did have a reputation for henpecking her husband. She suffered a bad press among contemporaries and, until relatively recently, among historians too.

The early attacks on Presidents’ wives came from members of Washington society. After 1870, however, expanded newspaper coverage began to focus the whole nation’s attention on the President and the First Lady, who seemed to be cast, Caroli says, as “chief wife, head hostess, and leading fashion plate.” It was thought that Lucy Hayes, who entered the White House in 1877, might challenge that image by using her new visibility to support women’s causes, particularly suffrage. She came from a family of reformers and was college-educated, palpably intelligent, and popular. She had been quoted in younger days as saying, “Woman’s mind is as strong as man’s … equal in all things and his superior in some.” But the only crusade she endorsed was temperance. She banned wine at White House functions. It earned her the name of Lemonade Lucy but left her otherwise relatively shielded from scolding.

The twentieth century further institutionalized the role of the wife in the White House. Edith Carow Roosevelt hired secretaries and caterers and personally managed the flow of information to the press about her lively young brood. Helen Taft earned fame by promoting an uncontroversial municipal decorating project. She spurred the planting of the Japanese cherry trees that bloom so beautifully every spring in Washington. But she lamented her exclusion from the President’s inner circle of political gossips. On campaign trips, she complained, “I am usually sent with a lot of uninteresting women through some side street to wait for him at some tea or luncheon.”