Autumn 2017 edition - page 4-5

The Power Behind the President
Role of the First Ladies: How they affected their husbands’ legacies
After he was President, Harry STruman
stated “I hope some day someone will take time to
evaluate the true role of wife of a President and to
assess the many burdens she has to bear and the
contribution she makes”. However, America’s First
Ladies have often been ignored while history has
celebrated the success of their husbands. Given the
widespread popularity of Michelle Obama now is a
good time to assess the role that First Ladies have
played in America’s history.
It was Dolley Madison, wife of America’s 4th Presi-
dent James Madison, who was initially called the
‘First Lady’ in a eulogy in 1849. She was so highly
regarded that her funeral was the largest that
Washington, DC had ever seen. Dolley was most
well known for her weekly ‘squeezes’ which were
soirees attended by both her husband’s enemies
and friends – attracted by the good food and music.
These occasions were significant in giving women
such as Dolley the opportunity to unofficially poli-
tick, promote and persuade. The ‘squeezes’ were
her source of power, giving her the chance to win
over her husband’s political opponents.
It was also in this drawing room that men
sought support for laws, and shared information
and ideas. It is arguable that the main impact of
Dolley’s weekly gatherings was that under her
watchful eye, official men of the Republican party
(which her husband led) and the opposition (the
Federalists) began to work together and created bi-
partisanship. The idea of bipartisanship was unprec-
edented and eventually led to the United States
becoming what it is now: a two-party democracy.
Therefore much of James Madison’s legacy
of creating unity can be put down to Dolley host-
ing her weekly gatherings. Her use of extensive
networking to rally support is shown to have been
especially crucial in ensuring that Madison became
President in the first place, as Charles Pinckney,
the opposing candidate in the 1808 election said
“I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr
Madison alone”.
While Dolley Madison had an indirect influ-
ence on her husband’s legacy, PresidentWoodrow
Wilson’s wife Edith had a more direct impact. When
Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919, she
established what she called her ‘stewardship’ and
took control of her husband’s affairs. Edith estab-
lished herself as the only way in which information
could be conveyed to and from her husband for
one year and five months. One Republican senator
labelled her “the Presidentress who had fulfilled
the dream of the suffragettes by changing her title
from First Lady to Acting First Man.”
Her ‘stewardship’ began with her carefully
controlling what the nation discovered, only reveal-
ing to the Cabinet, Congress, press and public that
Wilson was in need of rest and would be working
from his bedroom suite. She didn’t allow any Cabi-
net members to confer with the President and if
they had policy papers for him to review, she would
pass them on him if she deemed the matter press-
ing enough. While these government officials wait-
ed in theWest Sitting Room hallway she claimed
she would read the documents to her husband.
Despite Edith insisting until her death that she
never assumed the full power of the presidency, to
this day it is still not known whether the notes she
returned to the cabinet members were the Presi-
dent’s or hers, and whether she in fact even shared
the documents with him at all.
Her actions during this time are controver-
sial. While some applauded her success in taking
matters into her own hands, others believe that
it was selfish ignorance that led her to put herself
above the executive branch of government. Possi-
bly the most harmful result of Edith’s ‘stewardship’
was that she refused to compromise when nego-
tiating for the President’s version of the League of
Nations, killingWilson’s hopes of getting Senate
support for joining it. Edith may well have damaged
whatWilson had dreamed for as his legacy: ensur-
ing that the United States joined the League of
Nations.
Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D.
Roosevelt and longest-serving First Lady from 1933
to 1945, not only enhanced the legacy of her husband but also
created her own, as First Lady. She fundamentally changed the
role of First Lady with her active participation in American poli-
tics, both during and after her husband’s presidency.
She travelled across the country, feeding back to her
husband all that she had seen at the government institutions and
programs. She also encouraged her husband to appoint more
women to federal positions. At a time where women journalists
were usually excluded fromWhite House press conferences, she
held hundreds of them for women only. While she fulfilled the
traditional role of a quiet aide by her husband’s side, she also
expanded the role of the President’s spouse
Therefore she is widely regarded as the prototypical
‘modern’ First Lady as she was the first of her kind. She was one
of the first public officials to use mass media to publicise impor-
tant issues, holding regular press conferences, and was the first
president’s wife to speak at a national party convention and to
write a newspaper column. This was entitled “My Day” and lasted
for almost 30 years, being used to share information about her
activities and communicate her position on a wide range issues.
As well as this, her legacy is defined by her consistent fight for
social justice, for example by establishing an EmergencyVisitors
Visa Program to save “persons of exceptional merit” and show-
casing refugee musicians at theWhite House.
She continued with her public service and fight for social
justice even after the death of her husband, becoming chair of
the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission and helping to write the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This effort shows
how her role exceeded merely helping the President and that she
deserves the legacy that she has, which is one that stands sepa-
rately to that of her husband.
While the United States’ First Ladies have had differing
impacts, it is important that these are contextualised as at the
times that they lived. Most of their contributions were revolu-
tionary, given that they were the wives of the most powerful men
in the United States and of their time, largely expected to be
ornamental. Meanwhile the world waits to see what sort of first
wife Melina Trump will be, and how her legacy will fare next to
those of previous First Ladies.
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