Authors: ‘There Is Still So Much Unknown About First Ladies’
New book enlightens readers about the evolutionary role of the first lady and its historic importance.
It had been less than 24 hours since Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter had been laid to rest in her hometown of Plains, Georgia, and three of the country’s foremost experts on America’s first ladies were still processing the previous three days of ceremonies commemorating the former first lady.
What was stunningly surprising to so many people, one says, was how much Rosalynn Carter accomplished.
And, that saddened them.
To co-authors Diana B. Carlin, Anita B. McBride and Nancy Kegan Smith of the upcoming book Remember the First Ladies: The Legacies of America’s History-Making Women, that common reaction is what they've become accustomed to hearing over the years depending on the first lady. And on the day after a nation said a final farewell to the wife of Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, the three agreed that Rosalynn Carter did not receive the credit or wide recognition for everything she did — while she was alive.
The forthcoming book is the trade book partner to their first-ever, college-level textbook teaching about all of the first ladies called U.S. First Ladies: Making History and Leaving Legacies, which was released earlier this year. The trade book, which includes biographical and thematic chapters, shows the evolutionary role of the first lady and its historic importance to the presidency from Martha Washington through Dr. Jill Biden. The co-authors want readers to walk away with a better understanding of the contribution made by America’s first ladies to the presidency and to society.
And to be clear, they emphasize that the book is not a singular study in feminism. Rather, it’s a historical and comprehensive analysis that is not exclusively for women. It’s for men, too, says Smith, retired director of the Presidential Materials Division of the National Archives and Records Administration. “History normally covers what men do more than what women have done. So we are bringing that out in the open in both the textbook and the trade book to show how important and how many of these women have led society on key political or societal issues,” she says.
Still reflecting on Rosalynn Carter’s funeral, Carlin, professor emerita of communication at Saint Louis University, says there is still so much unknown about first ladies. “What these funerals tend to do is remind us that the public consciousness of first ladies and what they did while they were in office is not very deep.”
“What these funerals tend to do is remind us that the public consciousness of first ladies and what they did while they were in office is not very deep.” — Co-author Diana B. Carlin
In fact, as the three discussed Rosalynn Carter, Smith noted that they were learning new things about the former first lady. “It just amazed me how substantive she was and that it’s just coming out at her funeral.”
In actuality, though, this is true of almost every first lady, according to the co-authors, who are all founding members of the organization First Ladies Association for Research and Education.
It’s the lack of recognition during a first lady’s time in the White House and in the years after, that is partly why they decided to write the book.
Remember the First Ladies is not a biography, explains Smith. It’s an analysis of how these women affected the evolution of the role of first lady and what they substantively did. Smith gives another example in the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, a nonprofit that has raised more than $100 million in support of literacy programs across the country.
“If we are talking about inclusive history,” says McBride, director of the First Ladies Initiative at American University, “Then these women have to be included.”
Take former First Lady Pat Nixon for example. According to Smith, people often wondered what Pat Nixon knew about the Watergate scandal. “Pat really didn’t know about Watergate,” Smith says. “But for a long time, and even still today, I think there are people who judge Pat Nixon because they think she was part of the 10 abuses of governmental power when she was totally innocent, totally unaware.”
Part of what the co-authors are trying to accomplish with their book is to show that first ladies deserve a historical analysis on their own, not as an appendage to their husbands.
Additionally, it was important for the co-authors, says McBride, to uncover some little-known facts for the public to understand. “This book is an opportunity to look at context, particularly for women, but not solely for women, of what these women were able to achieve [during] the time in which they were in this very public role and [given] what was going on in the country.”
Readers will also learn more about the role the marital partnership played in and out of the White House. The Carters, according to Carlin, were a beautiful example of how everything was about “partnership.” By contrast are earlier presidential marriages, like that of Calvin and Grace Coolidge. The two didn’t step into what the other was doing. As a result, says Carlin, Grace Coolidge was extremely limited by Calvin Coolidge in what she was able to do as first lady.
“So the marriage itself has an influence on that role,” Carlin says, “How they see their roles in the marriage carries over into the White House.”
And, it might make people look at presidents differently, adds McBride, when they explore this aspect.
Ultimately, the book will humanize these women who are public figures serving in an unpaid, unique role. Readers will learn about the impact of what was going on in their personal lives. Some first ladies experienced the loss of children, some were widows, some had a lot of debt, and some had a lot of disappointment in their lives. And, all had lives before the presidency.
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