A Woman with Agency: The First White House Social Secretary

Jul 20, 2016

It's that time of year again! Every summer interns from around the country join us in our work on the TR Digital Library. We often ask them to share their experiences in the blog. Emily Perkins explores the position of White House Social Secretary.

While cataloging correspondence from the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division, I came across the typewritten words of a woman who held the position of “Social Secretary” to the White House. The creation date was 1902. The history of women in the White House suddenly fascinated me, as a major part of social history at the turn of the 20th century. This is not a time period that I would historically associate with female agency in cosmopolitan American society, much less political inclusion, so I was very curious to know more about her. How did she rise to this position? What did she do? Does the White House still have a Social Secretary position?

I learned that in 1902, Isabella Hagner became the first White House Social Secretary, with the help of first lady, Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt. History was being made and much was accomplished when the two worked together.  On the eve of an election with the first ever female major party nominee for President, it seems historic to see how far women have come in the seat of U.S. Government.

The position of Social Secretary, which handles everything from tea with the first lady to state dinner guest lists, endures to this day, based on the precedents set by Hagner and the Roosevelt Administration. Before the Roosevelts occupied the White House, male clerks would assume the responsibilities of a social secretary, including invitation lists, seating charts, decorations, and menus. They would work under the direction of a presidential aide, who was often a Colonel, or higher, in the U.S. Army.

Before Hagner arrived at the White House, the President’s aide was U.S. Army Colonel Theodore Bingham, and he served as the Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds. There is some controversy as to why he was relieved of his position, but it was the First Lady who insisted upon Hagner taking over his duties. In one story, the President fired Bingham to save face after ordering him to shush a loud, but important, man at a party. In another, Bingham and the First Lady butted heads over the renovations, which lead to a “Social War” for the White House, in which the First Lady and Hagner were ultimately victorious.

In turn-of-the-century America, calligraphy was a common trade for well-connected women to earn employment outside of marriage. Prominent women would enlist the work of social secretaries to hand-write invitations for social events, and use their knowledge of the city’s social scene to develop guest lists. Social secretaries in Washington, D.C., needed to have a firm grasp of the who’s-who in the U.S. Government and D.C. elite. At the time of her meeting the Roosevelts, Hagner was an unmarried freelance social secretary whose calligraphy skills and knowledge of the D.C. social landscape made her a valuable asset.

Edith Roosevelt began employing Hagner’s services in 1902, when President Roosevelt’s sister, Anna Roosevelt Cowles, introduced them. Hagner was employed to prepare the invitations for Alice Roosevelt’s Coming Out Party. The First Lady then enlisted her as her personal secretary. By the end of the year, Hagner had become close with the Roosevelt family and was often in attendance at social events at the White House, even before her appointment as Social Secretary. You could say that she was in the right place at the right time.

The Roosevelts were integral to the social history of the White House, as it was their renovations in 1903 that opened up what would become the West Wing, including a new State Dining Room and several reception halls. One of the stated purposes for the renovation was to make the White House appear more approachable. It could be possible that the Roosevelts wanted to consciously replace the stiff, military figure of Colonel Bingham with a genteel and friendly woman, to drive home the message that they were approachable and the country was at peace. The wars of the 19th century had pretty much ended by 1902. The U.S. was definitely still involved in conflicts worldwide, but it is possible that the appointment of Hagner and the White House renovations were attempts to give the illusion of peace, even if it didn’t exist.

It is interesting to see how the position developed over time, and it is interesting to study one of the only historically female positions on the White House Staff. Before Hagner, males usually handled social events at the White House. But after Hagner, the art of socializing became a woman’s job, in the opinion of every President and First Lady until 2011, when the Obama Administration appointed the first male, Jeremy Bernard, to the role. Obama also appointed the first African American White House Social Secretary, Desirée Rogers, in 2008, and the current Social Secretary, Deesha Dyer, the second African American appointed to the office, also serves as the Special Assistant to the President.

In 2010, The White House Historical Association launched an oral history project to document the stories of living former White House Social Secretaries. Isabella Hagner James’ papers are part of the White House Collection, and they provide valuable insight into a period of great change.

Posted by Emily Perkins on Jul 20, 2016 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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