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This association is always relevant to a nation that has long viewed its first ladies as cultural icons in front of political figures. Jackie Kennedy, Gutin said, was an integral part of fashion magazines during her time as first lady.
“And although she is known to most as a culture and fashion icon, she would be remembered for her extensive knowledge of history and monument preservation,” said Gutin, citing the tour of the White House as a product of her passion.
Kennedy was far from the only first lady whose history was reduced to her choice of clothes. When Martha Washington traveled from Virginia to New York over two centuries ago, she found that in her new role as president, her hair had to be washed and dressed every day. To this day, many Americans are only familiar with the Smithsonian’s first-lady dress exhibition. And while fashion is an important way to connect with history, “it’s a very one-dimensional lens to look at,” says Gutin.
This opinion is shared by Anita McBride, a founding member of FLARE who previously served as Laura Bush’s chief of staff. McBride’s self-described “front row seat” for her advocacy and dedication helped fuel her dedication to First Ladies storytelling.
McBride served in the White House on September 11, 2001, and while she has not yet worked for Laura Bush, she remembers what the then first lady said that day as pivotal Moment. After that day, Laura Bush was referred to as the “Comforter” for her role in calming the nation, a role that many other presidential branches have entered as well.
“I think this is an example of a role a first lady can play in making an impact on the nation,” said McBride, who also directs the American University’s First Ladies Initiative. “And of course that was a unique situation. But there have been other times in our history when the First Lady’s voice has really helped in areas of national tragedy, ”she added, noting Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in rallying Americans for the war effort during World War II.
The exact role of the first lady will, of course, vary from person to person. There was Eleanor Roosevelt, who some historians refer to as the “gold standard” of the First Ladies. There was Dolley Madison, best known for saving George Washington’s portrait from a White House fire that was lit by the British during the War of 1812. There was Mary Todd Lincoln visiting Union soldiers wounded during the Civil War on horseback. And in recent years there has been Hillary Clinton, who won a Senate seat as First Lady and later served as Secretary of State.
As the only woman in US history to win the presidential candidacy of a major party, Clinton’s 2016 White House campaign was also on the verge of installing her husband, former President Bill Clinton, as the nation’s first gentleman.
James Rosebush, who worked for Nancy Reagan during her husband’s tenure in the White House, was the first person to serve as the President’s agent while he was the First Lady’s Chief of Staff. When he thinks of their legacy, Rosebush thinks of a graduation ceremony they attended in Florida for children who had completed their drug rehab program. Rosebush sat next to Reagan and watched children hug their parents and cry when their names were revealed. In her Her hands clutched index cards with her prepared notes written in blue ink. Everyone was crying, Rosebush said, from the Secret Service to the press corps.
Before approaching high school, Reagan reached out to Rosebush and tore open her index cards.
“That was an example of a breakout moment for her,” said Rosebush, “and it worked because she exposed herself. She made herself vulnerable. ”
Rosebush said Reagan’s role was to support her husband in his presidency, an idea echoed by Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, Kenneth Duberstein. Duberstein said many mornings Nancy Reagan called him when her husband walked into the office and gave him advice on planning based on how well her husband slept the night before.
It’s stories like this that FLARE wants to share to get the word out about the unpaid, unelected, and full-time job of the first lady. Gutin said that after speaking, people would often come up to her with one of two reactions: either they had no idea about the First Ladies’ influence and wanted to know more, or they have their own story to tell about their encounter can be the spouse of the president. That’s how she heard some of her favorite first lady stories, including one about a woman at the Kennedy opening ball when Jackie looked directly at her and said, “I have this necklace, too.”
According to Lewis Gould, the “Godfather of First Lady” of academic studies, many first ladies are very influential even though they were underserved in their day. Gould, who taught the first university course on first ladies, had Lady Bird Johnson visit one time in his classroom. Before she came, he received calls from news organizations and others asking if they could take his normally 15-person course.
“And I was beginning to see that first ladies were public figures who had that culture of celebrity around them,” Gould said.
In their status as public figures, McBride said, the spouses of presidents can help beat the public eye on the world President. After all, the first lady is almost always much more popular than her husband. When Barack Obama left the White House with a slow 58% approval rating towards the end of his tenure, the numbers looked even better for Michelle Obama, who received a 72% positive rating in a Pew poll. As for the trumps, the former president left office with a nearly 30% approval rating. Still, Melania Trump slightly outshone him with a 42% approval rating, according to a CNN / SSRS poll.
As for the nation’s first second gentleman, Gutin said she was watching with great interest Doug Emhoff, who has already proven himself politically active on issues. And current first lady, Jill Biden, is setting a new historical precedent by taking a job outside of the home – she teaches English and writing classes at Northern Virginia Community College.
“We have approached this modern characterization of the spouse as a working spouse,” said McBride. “And it takes us there. So you know that each of them contributes in his own way. “