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How To Be First Lady
The ground rules have changed drastically since 1789. Abigail Adams, stifled in her time, would have loved being First Lady today.
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
ONCE AGAIN the candidates gear up for a national election; not only the candidates but their wives too. And pity the ladies! Their husbands run against different opponents; they, for nearly forty years, have had to measure up to one woman—Eleanor Roosevelt.
Because Eleanor Roosevelt campaigned across the country for FDR, they too must campaign for their husbands. Because Eleanor Roosevelt championed good causes, they too must be women with a cause. Because Eleanor Roosevelt held press conferences, so must they. In the course of her thirteen years in the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt created the modern First Lady.
Forty years later her grip on the American imagination still holds. So powerful is her model—and, perhaps, so weak is our national historical memory—that its revolutionary quality is all but forgotten. The fact is that Presidents’ wives before Eleanor Roosevelt, whatever their interests or talents, were forbidden to play politics in public. To break this rule was to invite contemporary scandal and historical disgrace.
To begin at the beginning, with Martha Washington: she did not attend her husband’s inauguration and did not arrive at the then-capital city of New York until a month later. Once there she complained that it was unfortunate that “I, who had much rather be at home, should occupy a place with which a great many younger and gayer women would be prodigiously pleased.” She did not, she wrote, expect “felicity from the splendid scenes of public life. … I sometimes think the arrangement is not quite as it ought to have been.”
Such reluctance makes a marked contrast with her willingness a decade earlier, while Washington was commanding the Continental Army, to join him each winter at his headquarters in order to bring him what he called “domestic enjoyments.” The years of the Revolutionary War had tested her mettle as the wife of the hero of the Republic and found her worthy.
Timidity does not, then, account for her unhappiness with the role of First Lady. There was, of course, no model she could emulate, nor could the reigning canons of female virtue come to her aid. During the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth, female virtue was made up of purity, piety, and passivity, qualities meant to be exercised only at home. Virtue so defined was radically at odds with public prominence. It is hardly surprising that the contradiction could be paralyzing.
In Martha Washington’s case, it was just that. When she arrived in New York, she found the President’s house furnished and the presidential social schedule fixed. Yet had she been there from the first, it is doubtful whether she would have been consulted in these arrangements. As Washington saw it, presidential style and deportment had the political weight of an affair of state. The question of how the first chief magistrate in modern history to be elected by his equals was to behave toward his fellow citizens required weighty consideration. A way must be found, wrote Washington, to “preserve the dignity and respect that was due to the first magistrate … without partaking of the follies of luxury and ostentation” indulged in by kings to overawe their subjects.
After lengthy consultation Washington set two weekly occasions when the citizenry could call without invitation at the President’s house: a Tuesdayevening levee for men only and a Friday-evening tea for both men and women. A third weekly event, this one by invitation only, was to be a Thursday dinner given by the President and his lady. There sociability stopped. The Washingtons would return no calls and accept no private invitations.
The levees were crowded but brief; the dinners bountiful in food and wine and equally bountiful in silence. At the teas the First Lady received sitting down, the Vice-President’s wife, Abigail Adams, seated at her side. These were hardly the “splendid scenes of public life” she had anticipated, and there was little else to occupy her. “I live a very dull life here and know nothing that passes in the town. I never go to any public place. Indeed, I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else. There is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from. And, as I cannot do as I like, I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal.” On occasion she permitted herself a less passive resistance, abruptly ending more than one tea party by saying in a loud voice that her husband normally went to bed at nine and that she always preceded him.
Next came John Adams. His wife, the formidable Abigail, schooled at Martha Washington’s side, knew what would be expected of her and took “no comfort or pleasure” in contemplating it. She foresaw no relaxation of the social constraints that had so irritated her predecessor. And worse she had a lively interest in politics that she was used to expressing. “I know not,” she wrote her husband, “how to place so many guards about me as will be indispensable, to look at every word before I utter it, and to impose a silence upon myself when I long to talk.” To this John Adams replied: “I have no concern on your account but for your health. A woman can be silent, when she will.” Her response was tart: “I hope to acquire every requisite degree of taciturnity which my station calls for, tho … it will be putting a force upon Nature.”