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First Ladies 101: An Awakening Decades in the Making
Professor Stacy A. Cordery – eyewitness to the birth of a historical field – educates the next generation about the power and influence of presidential spouses.
At the beginning of the semester, it’s not unusual for Professor Stacy A. Cordery to scan the new batch of students and suspect there may be a few who show up thinking her Iowa State University history course on America’s first ladies is going to be an easy class.
“I can’t fault them,” Cordery quips to me one early summer afternoon over Zoom.
And, it’s not because her class is easy. Ironically, it’s because it’s the same assumption she made as a young undergraduate at University of Texas in Austin in the fall of 1982. It was her senior year and Cordery was a theater major.
She laughs again and explains.
“I was looking around for an easy class, because I was an actor and I needed to be on the stage,” she says, overdramatizing the last half of that sentence. She found a class in the then printed course catalog called First Ladies in U.S. History. “I thought, ‘that’s got to be an easy ‘A’. What did first ladies ever do?’”
Cordery admits it was the reason she registered for the first-of-its-kind class — “to my eternal shame.”
It didn’t take long for reality to sink in after entering the seminar room and looking around at the other 12 senior history majors. The class was taught by Dr. Lewis L. Gould, the Eugene Barker Centennial Emeritus professor of history at the University of Texas in Austin. Gould is widely credited for his pioneering work that created a new discipline in the study of America’s first ladies, inspiring a new generation of first ladies scholars. If there’s ever been a pivot in her personal history, this was a big one for Cordery. She quickly figured out that this class was serious history.
“I was in the first class ever taught anywhere on the planet on first ladies,” Professor Stacy A. Cordery.
“I was in the first class ever taught anywhere on the planet on first ladies,” she says.
That semester in Gould’s class unexpectedly set her on a course to a future with the past. She pinpoints the moment when she felt the shift. Still in her senior year, she was researching the archives of Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady to her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served four terms in office (1933 to 1945), and clearly remembers the first time she held in her hand a letter written by Eleanor Roosevelt.
“At some point in her life Eleanor Roosevelt chose this piece of paper, and that particular pen, and leaned her arm on this letter,” Cordery says. “That was the moment I was first hooked.”
“At some point in her life Eleanor Roosevelt chose this piece of paper, and that particular pen, and leaned her arm on this letter,” she says. “That was the moment I was first hooked.”
And then, there was this standout memory:
Gould invited Lady Bird Johnson, first lady and wife of former President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963 to 1969), to visit his class after they studied her. She sailed into the classroom with her secret service team, Cordery recalls.
“They were all young and handsome and turned our heads,” she says. But when it came to taking in the former first lady, Cordery adds, “It was an amazing thing to see history in that way — [to] physically, literally be personified.”
The impression Lady Bird Johnson left on Cordery was also lasting, describing her as “gracious and thoughtful and everything you’d imagine.” Cordery recalls Johnson not being interested in dishing dirt about her husband or herself or anybody else. “She was very much the Texas lady.”
By second semester of her senior year, she completed an independent study under Gould following up on the research. “That was the beginning of a very long relationship with [Lewis] Gould, who is still a very deep, very, very dear friend of mine.”
By the time Cordery graduated with a degree in theater, her aspirations for the theater were already in the rearview mirror. Instead, Cordery went back to the University of Texas and earned a master's degree in history, followed by working with Gould as a Ph.D. student, and later authoring books on Juliette Gordon Low, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and Theodore Roosevelt and one forthcoming on Elizabeth Arden.
Staying the course with first ladies history
It was 2017 when Cordery taught her first, first ladies history course. She covers all the first ladies in chronological order from Martha Washington to the current first lady. In the past, Cordery has also asked students to do a three-part oral interview with someone of their grandmother's age, someone of their mother's age and then a friend of theirs. “We're trying to get a sense of how generations understand first ladies so that we can look at [the position’s] expectations,” Cordery says. “If the first lady has no job description other than what Americans expect of her, then what are those expectations?”
“If the first lady has no job description other than what Americans expect of her, then what are those expectations?” — Cordery
While Gould’s influence on Cordery’s career is apparent, she also has recognized over the years, like Gould, a lack of interest in the first ladies has straddled academia and the news media. “The field of first ladies has come a long, long way,” Cordery says. “I feel like a really old hand, like I've been struggling in the field more or less alone trying to get people to pay attention to it for a very long time. I'm aware that I'm not alone. But, journalists didn't care about first ladies very much. And when they did cover them, it was only clothing.”
Earlier on in her teaching career, Cordery describes trying to get a history class about the first ladies approved by the institution where she worked. It didn’t pass. Again, she says, the response was, “What do first ladies really do?” With the research field still in its infancy, the question was difficult to answer.
Sharing similar frustrations over the years is Anita McBride, former chief of staff to former First Lady Laura Bush (2005 to 2009) and executive-in-residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. She believes if the first ladies role in history as leaders and advocates isn’t taught, it will be lost.
“We're talking about inclusive history and that includes first ladies,” McBride says, who also directs programming and national conferences on the legacies of America’s first ladies through the First Ladies Initiative. “It includes the contributions that they have made in a role that is so unique, and has truly no authority, and how have they overcome that. That is worthy of study.”
This is what Gould intended when he embarked on the first ladies field of study — to spark this interest among up-and-coming scholars to look deeper at this story, according to McBride, co-author of U.S. First Ladies: Making History and Leaving Legacies.
“The goal is to inspire the students to dig deeper into this position, these women, what their contributions have been, [and] what role they have played in history. It's just taken a lot of time to get to this point. But we're there,” McBride says. “[Cordery] brings these stories to life and … makes these women approachable.”
At Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Professor and author Katherine A. S. Sibley teaches a seminar examining all the first ladies with the idea to get students to understand their importance while they’ve been long neglected. Like Cordery, Sibley believes it’s important for students to understand not just the role of the first lady, but also the role of soft power and the role of women in a marriage where their power is dependent on their husband — what she calls contingent power. Students learn about how a first lady’s power can also be used for good causes and about the interesting problems around women's agency in relationship to men through a position of relatively high power and prestige. Sibley also believes people should study first ladies because they are interesting in their own right.
“[First ladies] can illuminate larger angles of American culture in history in a very concise way,” Sibley adds. “With first ladies, you can thread this path through American history where you can look at a lot of changes that women and also their husbands were facing. And, it puts it in the context of the wars that were going on, the crises that were happening, [and] the issues that were arising. It's really a great way to see American history in a way that's manageable.”
Additionally, Cordery insists that the importance of learning about first ladies is paramount based on the men with whom they’ve shared the White House.
“Most of us in America who can't agree on anything else can probably agree on the fact that the President is the most powerful person in the United States, arguably, in the world,” says Cordery. “I think we ignore at our peril, the people who exert the greatest influence over the most powerful man on the planet.”
“I think we ignore at our peril, the people who exert the greatest influence over the most powerful man on the planet,” Cordery says.
In this way, Cordery explains that first ladies are both unique and of their time. First ladies exert an unseen power because the first lady, herself, often downplays it, or the president’s staff downplays it.
“The fact that it gets downplayed either by her or others, doesn't mean it doesn't exist,” Cordery says. “I think in a democracy, it's worth our while to study powerful figures, particularly those who are closest to the president.”
Although Cordery, along with McBride and Sibley, believes interest in first ladies is long overdue, they all share a level of optimism about the future of the study of first ladies. In 2018, McBride and Sibley were the founding members of the First Ladies Association of Research and Education (FLARE). The organization was established to create and sustain a network to promote and publicize research and education relevant to the contributions, lives, impact and lasting legacies of first ladies. They all agree things are changing, for the better. Cordery, also a member of FLARE, credits former First Ladies Hillary Rodham Clinton and Michelle Obama for that shift.
“Michelle Obama came off as personable and interested and, and ultimately proud of her country and excited and thrilled to be in the position she was in. And [she was] obviously besotted with her husband,” Cordery says.“...I think the pair of them and the family with her mom, were so appealing that the combination of Hillary Clinton's power and Michelle Obama's charisma made Americans overall say, ‘Oh, so this first lady thing, we should pay more attention to it.’”
Editor’s note: East Wing Magazine is a member of the First Ladies Association of Research and Education.
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