long to hear that you have declared an independency ‚ and by the
way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary
to make I desire that you would Remember the Ladies, and be more
generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such
unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men
would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention
is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to ferment a Rebellion,
and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no
voice, or Representation...
- Abigail Adams
President: From Martha to Laura
13 — October 29, 2006
As the first wife of an American president to reside there, Abigail Adams famously hung her laundry in the unfinished East Room of the White House. Other First Ladies would find, if not dirty washing, then family privacy hung out to dry before a gaping public. Frances Folsom was all of twenty-two years old in the summer of 1885, where she wed Grover Cleveland in a Blue Room ceremony ‚ still the only instance of a president marrying inside the White House. The new Mrs. Cleveland found fame to be a decidedly mixed blessing, as her image was used to sell coffee and other products ‚ and she was forced to deny unfounded rumors that her husband was physically abusive. When he was defeated for re-election in 1888 Frances reassured White House staffers that they would be back ‚ and so they were, exactly four years later.
All too often the public stage of America's House has been the scene of private anguish. Ellen Wilson inspired today's Rose Garden; she could see it from her deathbed in the sultry summer of 1913. Sixty years earlier, Jane Pierce secreted herself in a second floor chamber, where she wrote piteous letters to her son Bennie, who had been killed before her eyes in a train wreck en route to his father's inauguration. Earlier still, Louisa Catherine Adams was so miserable as First Lady of the land that she became a confirmed chocoholic, writing long letters extolling the healing qualities of the stuff while lying on a White House divan ingesting this most delightful of medicines. After the stringent security of World War I, Florence Harding willingly ordered the curtains raised and the rope lowered. "It's their White House too," she declared of would-be gawkers eager for a glimpse of official life.
As vivacious as her husband was socially withdrawn, Grace Coolidge suffered through the loss of sixteen year old Calvin Coolidge, Junior, who died of blood poisoning from a blister raised on the White House tennis courts. Few women have been so eager to be First Lady as Nellie Taft, who dissuaded her judicially minded husband Will from accepting a Supreme Court nomination. The ambitious Nellie had other nominations in mind, yet when her vision was finally fulfilled in 1909, her joy was short lived. A few months after moving into the White House Nellie suffered a crippling stroke which robbed her of speech and cast a heavy pall over the Taft Administration. Lou Henry Hoover made radio appeals to assist victims of the Great Depression that wrecked her husband's career.
In a class by herself is Mary Todd Lincoln, derided by Washington snobs as The Illinois Queen, and emotionally devastated by the death of her son Willie and the assassination of her husband. More authentically regal, but no less immune to White House tragedy, Jacqueline Kennedy received an Emmy Award for her nationally televised tour of the White House in 1962. By then Mrs. Kennedy's status as an icon of style was second only to her role as devoted mother. Other First Ladies have cast their own spell over the fashionably minded. Dolley Madison was known for her trademark turbans (as well as for serving ice cream, a foreign delicacy attributed by some historians to the worldly Thomas Jefferson). In the 1950s Americans went crazy for Mamie pink, Mamie bangs, even Mamie fudge ‚ one of only two dishes (the other being mayonnaise) that the culinarily challenged Mrs. Eisenhower was able to make. Eleanor Roosevelt's specialty was scrambled eggs, though FDR complained that White House food was so bad one day he almost bit a hopeless chef.
Of course, it's not her cuisine but her conscience for which we remember Mrs. Roosevelt, the first presidential wife to hold her own press conferences, host her own radio broadcasts (sponsored by Simmons mattresses), conduct her own world tours and pursue a sometimes controversial agenda of social activism. In the nineteenth century Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes ‚ long since patronized as "Lemonade Lucy" - argued for women's suffrage as eloquently as she opposed alcoholic consumption. Caroline Harrison agreed to lend her name to a fundraising campaign for a Baltimore medical school ‚ so long as it was co-educational. In our own era, Ladybird Johnson championed environmental causes long before they were fashionable. In going public with her breast cancer, Betty Ford prompted countless other women to be tested for the deadly disease. Rosalynn Carter helped to ease the stigma of mental illness. Barbara Bush campaigned on behalf of literacy.
Hillary Clinton took the unpaid, undefined portion of presidential spouse to a whole new level, by winning a seat in the United States Senate and sparking talk that she might yet return to the White House, this time as president. Originally pigeonholed as a "traditional" First Lady in the Bess Truman/Mamie Eisenhower mould, Laura Bush has surprised many by the reassurance she offered a shaken nation post 9/11, not to mention a sometimes wicked sense of humor aimed squarely at the Bushes of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But then, the history of American First Ladies is often surprising. Truth be told, many of these women are more interesting, complex, or enigmatic than their husbands. To know their individual stories is to know far better the collective story of women in America, and how their roles have evolved over the past two centuries.
This is precisely the story that was told in the exhibit, through
hundreds of items, including original gowns, historical artifacts,
White House furnishings, intimate letters and revealing video, in
the blockbuster exhibit, Mrs. President: From Martha to Laura, which
ran from May 13 through October 29, 2006.
As with Blood on the Moon,
our acclaimed exhibit on the Lincoln assassination, the Mrs. President
exhibit is unique to the ALPLM.
It was greatly enhanced by an equally ambitious series of related
programs - one woman shows, lectures, conferences, and more, all
made possible by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation
In this online version of the exhibit you can browse the First Ladies Gallery or view video
from the Conference.