“Petticoat Government”

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By historical accident it was Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith Gait Wilson, who briefly had the most absolute power ever exerted by a First Lady. Felled by a paralytic stroke in 1919, the President lay at death’s door for weeks. Determined to save him and his Presidency, Edith guarded the approaches to the sickroom. No one saw Wilson, and no document reached him, that she did not first clear, and rumor had it that Edith actually was signing her name to state papers. “Petticoat government” was what one enraged opposition member of the Senate called it. Edith firmly denied the charge. She managed to hold off the inevitable visit of a bipartisan team of senators to check out the situation until such time as Wilson was recovered enough to shake their hands, discuss a little business, and even joke with them feebly. Thereafter she dropped back into more familiar wifely grooves.

Grace Coolidge suppressed a natural vivacity (she loved smoking, short hair, airplane travel, and the Boston Red Sox) but looked back on her White House days with a rueful schizophrenic reflection: “This was I and yet not I— this was the wife of the President of the United States and she took precedence over me.” Lou Hoover was a trained geologist and the translator of a sixteenth-century Latin treatise on metallurgy; nonetheless, she devoted her First Ladyship to cheerleading for the Girl Scouts of America.

And then came Eleanor. What was special about her was not her progressive idealism but rather her insistence on preserving a status other than that of dutiful helpmate. In 1932 she flatly told a friend, “I never wanted to be a President’s wife and I don’t want it now.”

She meant that in a special way. She was in fact a good self-taught political wife—a sharp campaigner and mobilizer of women’s organizations as well as a pulse taker, reporter, and go-between with various problematic constituencies. But she did not want to be the “personage” that the President’s wife had become, the prisoner of public expectations. On the other hand, she was willing to use the influence of the “personage” on behalf of her favored causes. She held independent news conferences, wrote magazine articles and columns defending liberal positions, and boldly endorsed programs and protégés among the previously dispossessed groups that were becoming part of the Roosevelt coalition: unionized workers, “Negroes,” sharecroppers, slum dwellers. She pursued firsthand contact with ordinary people so relentlessly that a famous New Yorker cartoon showed one coalblackened miner in a pit exclaiming in amazement to another: “For gosh’s sake, here comes Mrs. Roosevelt.”

It was Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Edith, who held the most absolute power ever exerted by a First Lady.

All of this made her a lightning rod. Her influence was a matter of debate. The Washington reporter Raymond Clapper called her one of the ten most powerful people in Washington, virtually a “cabinet minister without portfolio.” On the other hand, no biographer has found her clear imprint on any major FDR decision.

Nevertheless, her mere existence drove conservatives like Westbrook Pegler into spasms of rage. Like her children and like Fala, the President’s Scottie, she became the target of numberless jokes. I remember some of them, which made fun of her looks or her finishing-school accent, as meanspirited in the extreme.

There is rich material in Caroli’s pages on changing profiles and patterns among post-1945 First Ladies. Space precludes further discussion here. If I have paid special attention to Eleanor Roosevelt, it is because, in my own judgment, Hillary Rodham Clinton most resembles her in forthright assertion of a separate and equal ranking for herself as First Lady, an untrammeled right to interests that can’t be crammed into any conventional framework of homemaker-in-chief. And that forthright female assertiveness (as well as the usual practice of hitting at a President through his wife, friends, and family) is what underlies the “Hillary problem” experienced by some commentators.

Someday the United States will elect a woman as its Chief Executive. When that happens, will her husband be known as the First Gentleman? Will the cut of his clothes be a matter of public comment? Will pundits groan if his advice on public issues is openly solicited? Will he be criticized if he continues a career on his own? Will his wife suffer in the opinion polls if he neglects such masculine duties as supervising Boy Scout campouts or lets it be known that he never watches sporting events on TV and hates to barbecue? Perhaps so, but I would not bet on it.