Our First Lady

By Sarah Hummel '19 and Matthew Solomon '20 | May 4, 2018

First lady montage

History major Sarah Hummel '19 and politics major Matthew Solomon '20 have created an exhibit at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics (NHIOP), featuring an honorary display for Barbara Bush and items drawn from the Institute's own collection that provide a glimpse into the lives and legacies of various First Ladies.

First Lady is the unofficial title for the wife, or designated female relative, of the President of the United States. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, various unofficial titles were given to this figure, including “Lady Presidentress,” “Mrs. President,” “First Lady of our Land,” and “Our First Lady.”

The term “lady” was initially controversial because of its royal undertones, particularly in a nation newly separated from a monarchical country. Nevertheless, the phrase “first lady” was first seen in print in the March 31, 1860 edition of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and by the twentieth century, the title was commonly accepted.

"The first lady is, and always has been, an unpaid public servant elected by one person, her husband."
~ Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson

Just as the title has evolved over the nation’s lifetime, the role of the First Lady has also changed. Martha Washington and Dolley Madison interpreted the role as a ceremonial one, becoming hostesses for social gatherings and managing the presidential household. While Abigail Adams followed suit, she also advised her husband on political affairs.

As the nineteenth century wore on, first ladies began to push the boundaries of the private sphere by becoming involved in social causes or projects. Harriet Lane, niece of James Buchanan and his surrogate “First Lady,” was interested in the circumstances of Native Americans. Mary Todd Lincoln supported education, housing, and employment opportunities for emancipated slaves. Helen Taft worked with the National Civic Federation to improve health and safety laws for workers. Lou Hoover expressed similar ambitions, as well as advocating for women, immigrants, and other underprivileged populations. 

"That’s a role that each first lady has to define for herself. There is no job description for the first lady and she’s only there because her husband got elected president."
~ Nancy Reagan

Perhaps one of the most visible examples of the evolving role of the First Lady was Eleanor Roosevelt. In addition to serving as a political partner to her husband, Roosevelt also became involved in social activism. She held all-female press conferences, traveled across the globe to promote the New Deal, and expressed her desire for basic human rights and greater social equality in her newspaper column, “My Day.” She supported women’s rights and African American rights, though she was harshly criticized for her outspoken, public presence.

"Any first lady can do whatever they want to do."
~ Laura Bush

First Ladies in the latter half of the twentieth century and early twenty-first century have continued this tradition of activism, accompanied by an increasing staff including, among others, a Press Secretary and a Chief of Staff. Jacqueline Kennedy was dedicated to historic preservation of the White House, particularly through restoration projects, expanding the White House’s fine arts collection, creating the Fine Arts Committee for the White House, establishing the White House Historical Association, and giving televised tours of the White House. Rosalynn Carter found her cause in the performing arts and in mental health programs, and Barbara Bush advocated for literacy and the elimination of homelessness and AIDS.

More recently, Michelle Obama supported families of service members, advocated higher education, and sought to eliminate childhood obesity by establishing initiatives to support healthy eating and exercise. Current First Lady Melania Trump has expressed interest in making children the focus of her advocacy, particularly countering cyberbullying. 

"Any First Lady, rightfully, gets to define her role. There’s no legislative authority; you’re not elected. And that’s a wonderful gift of freedom."
~ Michelle Obama

Over time, the role of the First Lady has evolved to become more active, independent, and influential in American society.

The exhibit, entitled "Our First Lady," will open on May 9, 2018. To view, please visit the NHIOP any Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.