Visitors to the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. flock to the gowns of first ladies. They peer into the glass wanting to know these women who entered the White House in a role that’s often ill-defined and complex. A first lady must be socially engaged, but she should pick causes that are “proper.” A first lady should support her husband, but also know her place. A first lady should be fashionable, but error on the side of modesty.
Recently, I read Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies by Kristie Miller. In books on Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson does not usually emerge as a full dimensional person. He is the president who refused to take action during World War I and thwarted TR’s great ambitions. In Miller’s book, Wilson emerges as an intellectual with a complicated life that depended on the love of multiple women. Those interested in learning more about first ladies throughout U.S. History can check out the following books:
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza. First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961. (New York: Harper-Collins, 2003).
Anthony incorporates interviews with families, friends, and staff into his account of the first ladies. He is also the author of Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of American’s Most Scandalous President and Ida McKinley: The Turn-of-the Century First Lady through War, Assassination, and Secret Disability.
Caroli, Betty. First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
In the fourth edition of her book, Caroli covers Laura Bush’s time as first lady, Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, and a study of Michelle Obama. Caroli also discusses the daughters and sisters of presidents who sometimes acted as first ladies.
Gould, Lewis L. American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy. (New York: Routledge, 2001).
Gould discusses the full impact that first ladies have had on political history. He is also the author of “Edith Bolling (Galt) Wilson” and Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Creating the Modern First Lady.
Wertheimer, Molly Meijer, ed. Inventing a Voice: The Rhetoric of American First Ladies of the Twentieth Century. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004).
Using a rhetorical framework, the contributors look at the speaking, writing, media coverage and interaction, and visual rhetoric of American first ladies from Ida Saxton McKinley to Laura Bush.
Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt, Date Unknown. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.