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“Petticoat Government”

June 2024
6min read

First Ladies have been under fire ever since Albert Gallatin called Abigail Adams “Mrs. President”

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 Kermit 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.”

By historical accident it was Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith Galt 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 coal-blackened 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 mean-spirited 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.

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