First Lady Feature: Abigail Adams

By Kaleena Fraga

While John Adams convened at the First Congress, Abigail Adams wrote her husband a letter reminding him to:

“Remember the ladies…remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

In his reply, John Adams was light-hearted, telling his wife:

“Depend on it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems…in practice you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.”

Her early (early) wave feminism continued. Later in life, Abigail sent a note along with a abigail-adams-9175670-1-402book she’d purchased for her niece, which she’d discovered portrayed women as unequal to men. The note was a warning to read the book with a grain of salt. Abigail wrote: “I will never consent to have our sex considered in an inferior point of light.”

Abigail Adams had no formal education, but benefited from the libraries of her father and grandfather, of which she had free reign as a girl. She took a special interest in philosophy, theology, Shakespeare, the classics, history, government, and French. Her wit and intelligence is preserved in the letters she wrote in her lifetime–to her husband, to friends, and to political frenemies like Thomas Jefferson.

She advocated for equal education for boys and girls, believed in emancipation for American slaves, and, above all, in the cause of independence. Although they spent many years apart (once, while John Adams lived in Europe, they spent a consecutive five years without seeing each other), Abigail and John Adams remained close throughout their marriage. Abigail Adams was a political partner as well. During her husband’s presidency, some even darkly referred to her as Mrs. President.

aaAbigail Adams was the first First Lady to live in the White House. She and John Adams moved to Washington D.C. from Philadelphia once the mansion was finished. As she wrote a friend, the executive mansion was huge and sparse. “It is habitable by fires in every part, thirteen of which we are obliged to keep daily, or sleep in wet and damp places.” Abigail used today’s East Room to dry the family’s laundry.

When she died, Abigail’s son John Quincy Adams (who would go on to be president himself) wrote in his diary, “My mother was an angel upon earth. She was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity. She [had no] feelings but of kindness and beneficence; yet her mind was as firm as her temper was mild and gentle.”

Despite her forward-thinking views, and despite Abigail Adams’ relationship with men in power like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, she would not see equality between men and women in her lifetime. Women would not have the right to vote for another 143 years from the time she asked her husband to “remember the ladies.”

First Lady Feature: Barbara Bush

By Kaleena Fraga

On a late spring day in 1990, Barbara Bush stepped up to the podium at Wellesley College to deliver the school’s commencement address. Her invitation had prompted furor across the student body. To many students at Wellesley, Barbara Bush was no role model. One hundred and fifty students signed a petition which read:

‘Wellesley teaches that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse. To honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contravenes what we have been taught over the last four years at Wellesley.”

Her defenders said the outrage was generational. When asked about the controversy herself, the First Lady said that she understood the students’ perspective. “They’re 21 years old and they’re looking at life from that perspective,” Mrs. Bush said. “I don’t disagree with what they’re looking at. But I don’t think they understand where I’m coming from. I chose to live the life I’ve lived, and I think it’s been a fabulously exciting, interesting, involved life. In my day, they probably would have been considered different. In their day, I’m considered different. Vive la difference.”

Her husband didn’t mince words. In his diary, George H.W. Bush wrote that the “elitist kids” of Wellesley dismissed her accomplishments as a wife, a mother, a volunteer, and a “great leader for literacy.”

Barbara Bush was made of presidential stuff long before she met her husband–she’s a descendent of Franklin Pierce, the 14th president. She and Abigail Adams are also the only women in history to be both a wife and a mother to a president.

bush and hwBarbara Bush met her husband at sixteen and married him four years later, after his brush with death during WWII. Before marriage Mrs. Bush had enrolled in Smith College–she was a voracious reader as a girl–and helped out in the war effort by working at a nuts and bolts factory in the summer of 1943. As the wife of George H.W. Bush–who, over the course of their marriage, was the Ambassador to the United Nations, the Director of the C.I.A., and the Vice President of the United States–Mrs. Bush had the opportunity to see the world. She oversaw moving her family twenty-nine times.

Within a few weeks of her husband’s inauguration to the presidency in 1989, Barbara Bush made literacy her cause as First Lady. At the launch of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, Mrs. Bush stated that, “In 10 years of traveling around the United States of America, visiting literary programs, libraries, kindergarten groups, day-care centers, single-parent classes for high school dropouts, public housing projects, food banks – you name it, I’ve visited it – it has become very apparent to me that we must attack the problem of a more literate America through the family. We all know that adults with reading problems tend to raise children with reading problems.” The foundation today is active in all 50 states. It seeks to support parents who are improving their reading level, with the goal that the parents will read to their children.

Although during her husband’s presidency Barbara Bush rarely drew attention on her bbush conventionown political views, she was more outspoken before and after H.W.’s term in office. During his vice presidential run she expressed support for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and embrace pro-choice views on abortion. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Mrs. Bush stated that the abortion debate had no place in the party platform at all. Abortion, she said, “was a personal thing.”

Barbara Bush would also redefine the role of first spouses when she became the first First Lady to deliver prepared remarks at the 1992 Republican Convention. During the (increasingly bitter) campaign, Mrs. Bush also defended Hillary Clinton, who was under fire for her own outspoken political views.

As for that speech in 1990, Barbara Bush (whose husband voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016) left the Wellesley class of ’90 with this:

“Who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day  follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse–and I wish him well.”

First Lady Feature: Pat Nixon

By Kaleena Fraga

p nixonIn honor of Women’s History Month, History First is going to spend some time talking about the women standing beside American presidents. First–one of our favorites: Pat Nixon.

Pat Nixon, who holds the honor of being the first First Lady with a college degree, had a remarkable life long before meeting Richard Nixon. Born Thelma Ryan, she went by the nickname “Buddy” as a girl and “Pat” when she got older–apparently changing to Pat after the death of her father, who’d often referenced her birth being only a few hours before Saint Patrick’s day. By the time she was seventeen, both her parents had died–leaving her to care for her brothers.

When she graduated high school, Pat moved to New York City and worked in a Catholic hospital in the Bronx. Upon returning to California, she worked her way through college and earned a degree from the University of Southern California. Her tuition cost 240$. Pat worked 40 hours a week to pay it.

Having worked for this degree, and having attained a job as a teacher in Whittier, California, Pat Ryan had no desire to find a husband and settle down. But her acting partner in a local theatre group had other ideas. Richard Nixon pursued her with a persistence that many would see today as over the top and creepy. When he first asked her out, she said no. When he asked her again, she laughed. “Don’t laugh,” he told her, according to John A. Farrell’s Nixon biography, Nixon, The Life, “someday, I’m going to marry you.”

Indeed, Richard Nixon went to great lengths to keep Pat in his life, including driving her to dates with other men. When she moved without telling him her new address, he sent a letter to her school, writing that he had to see her again–anytime “that you might be able to stand me!”

pat and dickStill, the two came from similar backgrounds of hard work and tough luck, and Pat seems to have changed her mind. Two years after they met, she accepted his proposal of marriage.

As First Lady, she encouraged Americans to volunteer their time to good causes, and continued Jackie Kennedy’s project of preservation of the White House. She had the first wheelchair ramps installed at the White House (which is remarkable, since twenty years earlier, the president himself used a wheelchair). She also created White House tours for visitors with trouble seeing or hearing.

Many within Richard Nixon’s inner political circle saw Pat as the human side of the president they needed to project to the public. Charles Colson, a White House aide who would later be incarcerated for charges relating to Watergate, wrote a memo to the president about First Lady Nixon’s recent humanitarian trip to Peru. (Pat Nixon would be the most traveled first lady until Hillary Rodham Clinton entered the White House):

“As you know we have tried hard…to project ‘color’ about you, to portray the human side of the President…because of the hostility of the media, it has been an exceedingly difficult, frustrating and not especially successful undertaking. Mrs.  Nixon has now broken through where we failed. She has come across as warm, charming, graceful, concerned, articulate and most importantly–a very human person. It would be hard to overestimate the political impact…She is an enormous asset.”

Pat Nixon’s other legacies include the White House being lit at night, historical markers along the White House fence so that visitors could learn about the house and its history, and the refurbishing of the White House itself.

nixon at pat's funeralThe marriage was far from perfect–Pat once wrote a friend that when it came to household chores, “Dick is always too busy, at least his story, so I do all the lugging, worrying and cussing,”–but their relationship remained solid. It takes only a look at Richard Nixon’s face at the funeral of his wife to see the impact she had on him. And not only him–but the on the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who visit the White House, and the First Ladies who followed in her footsteps and her example.

Millions of Cracks in the Glass Ceiling: Women, the White House, and the Path Ahead

By Molly Bloom

The American political system has changed significantly in the nearly one hundred years since the passing of the 19th amendment in 1920 that granted women the right to vote. Not only were women provided a new right to contribute to the government, but slowly, women began to occupy federal positions as well.

jr for congressFour years before the 19th amendment was ratified, Jeanette Rankin became the first woman elected to the House of Representatives. Six years later, Rebecca Felton filled an interim seat for only one day as a United States Senator (an activist and suffragette, Felton’s seat was largely symbolic). It was not until ten years later in 1932 that a woman was truly elected to serve in the Senate when Hattie Caraway secured a seat from Arkansas.

Simply having women in Congress is not necessarily a symbol of progress in the women’s rights movement. Just under 1/5 of the seats in the House of Representatives are currently occupied by women. This is the highest percentage in the history of the House. Only since 1978 has a woman consistently filled a seat in the Senate, and it wasn’t until 1992, over seventy years after the passage of the 19th amendment, that three out of one hundred Senate seats were held by women at one time. With the appointment of Tina Smith to fill Al Franken’s Senate seat, there will be more women in the Senate than ever–twenty-two.

Sandra Day O’Connor famously became the first female Supreme Court Justice when she was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1981. O’Connor’s appointment was viewed as a major victory for the women’s rights movement, demonstrating that a woman could serve on the highest court in the country. With women employed in Congress, as governors, and at the local level, the Supreme Court was the latest governmental barrier to break. Today, three of the nine justices are women. 

With the legislative and judicial branches populated with women, only the metaphorical glass ceiling of the executive branch has yet to be shattered. Hillary Clinton was the first woman to make a run for the presidency as a candidate from a major political party; however, women have been denied even lateral access to the White House prior to 2016.

In the presidential election of 1984, Geraldine Ferraro joined the ticket of Walter ferraroMondale, who won the Democratic nomination. Formerly a member of the House of Representatives, Ferraro was the first female vice presidential candidate for a major party. Not surprisingly, the media focused on the novelty of a female on a major ticket and critiqued her on inexperience. Reporters called into question her marriage, family finances, and even tried to invent a connection to the Italian mob based on her family’s heritage. The campaign never recovered, and Reagan/Bush went on to win decisively in November.

Sarah Palin received scrutiny as well when she became John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election.  Beyond inexperience, the media had a seemingly endless supply of drama-filled topics and attacks; her intelligence, her teenage daughter’s pregnancy, and her history in beauty pageants. Likely voters had divided opinions about her, especially after a story that the Republican National Committee had financed her wardrobe. Although she later became an icon of the conservative movement, McCain/Palin lost to Obama/Biden 52.9% to 45.7%

Transcending party lines and spanning decades, attempts to elect a woman into the White House, either as the president or vice president of the United States, have fallen short. The closest we have come is seeing intelligent, accomplished first ladies take on projects during their husbands’ time in office, at least gaining some platform to enact change. This tradition started largely with Lady Bird Johnson’s national beautification initiative and has continued ever since. Before Lady Bird made the tradition official, Eleanor Roosevelt was an outlier in her determination to use her platform to make a difference. When she spearheaded an anti-lynching campaign during her husband’s presidency, a New Jersey woman wrote FDR’s assistant, asking if the president couldn’t “muzzle [his wife]…she talks too damn much.” 

Political scientists and sociologists can speculate about whether voters are threatened by powerful women, more comfortable with “traditional” gender roles, or perceive women as having weaknesses ill-suited for executive power. Yet given Clinton’s near miss in 2016, it seems likely that there will be another great shift in American political culture, as in the 1920s, which will finally see a woman win the White House.