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“Flipping” the Narrative of America’s First Ladies
Why historic site leaders want stories amplifying first ladies standing on their own.
Deep in the Hudson Valley region of New York, not far from the edge of Val-Kill Pond, sits a stone cottage of the same name against a backdrop of lush forestry where curiosity-seekers from around the globe come to visit.
This is Val-Kill cottage — the first historic site designated in honor of an American first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Situated on the outskirts of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, the cottage, in some ways, symbolizes the stature of first ladies and their evolving influence in their counterparts’ political spheres. The cottage is located on the far end of the estate, about two miles from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Springwood Mansion and adjacent presidential library. It stands on its own.
Similarly, that was one theme echoed this week when some leaders of historic presidential sites across the country converged at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. for the 2023 Presidential Sites Summit where they advocated for “flipping” the traditional narrative of first ladies at such sites. First ladies’ stories often become footnotes to the legacies of the men to which they were married. If women begin as footnotes in history, they will always be footnotes, says Christina Shutt, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum during a panel discussion Wednesday.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill cottage (also once a furniture factory established by Eleanor Roosevelt) in some ways benefited from the foresight of her husband, who was the first president to establish a presidential library that he created and built while still in office. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s intention was to give the Springwood residence to the federal government upon his death. The National Archives and Records Administration oversees his presidential library, and the National Park Service oversees Springwood.
Val-Kill was built for Eleanor Roosevelt in 1924 for a different purpose — to enjoy with her close friends Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman. It’s been described as a “refuge and hideaway” for Eleanor Roosevelt and also as a vibrant place for family picnics and activities, and eventually, a space for political and United Nations associates to gather. It was her permanent home in 1945 until her death in 1962.
“It became a place where [Eleanor Roosevelt] could practice a personal sort of diplomacy,” according to author William G. Clotworthy, in his book “Homes of the First Ladies.” Today, the cottage presents an alternative experience for visitors touring the presidential site.
“It is a quieter, more contemplative place,” says Amy Bracewell, National Park Service superintendent for the homes of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Van Buren and the Vanderbilt Mansion. “It's not the pomp and circumstance of a presidential site. It's a cozy, like-your-grandmother's-house kind of site. People gravitate to each one differently.”
Unlike Springwood, when Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962, Val-Kill was inherited by her family. They auctioned off all of her furnishings and personal items, and sold off some of the acreage of the property. In the early 1970s, concerned citizens organized a drive to preserve Val-Kill “as a home of historical interest,” according to Clotworthy. It was President Jimmy Carter in 1977 who signed a bill approved by Congress creating the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site.
At that point, says Bracewell, the National Park Service worked with the family and others to start re-furnishing the house. “We have been able to find a lot of the original items. And, we have great photographic records … so we were able to replicate that furniture.”
The rarity of first ladies historic sites was still apparent when, in 1998, efforts to establish one facility to commemorate the lives and legacies of America’s first ladies came to fruition.
Mary A. Regula, wife of former U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula (1973 to 2009), had a vision to transform the childhood residence of former First Lady Ida Saxton McKinley into a space where all first ladies could be honored, Patty Dowd Schmitz, president and CEO of the National First Ladies Library, tells East Wing Magazine in a phone interview. The Canton, Ohio, residence was dedicated as the home of the National First Ladies Library, which is a physical education site with tours, programs and research opportunities and a virtual library. Ida McKinley was married to William McKinley, who served as president from 1897 until his assignation in 1901.
The site represents the deep ties the former first lady had in the community and tells the story of her 30-year marriage, for most of which she lived with a crippling health condition. The National First Ladies Library focuses on first ladies’ lives from beginning to end, not just the four or eight years that they were in office with their husbands.
“Most of the time, first ladies get folded into their husband's presidential sites,” Dowd Schmitz says. “As women, we talk about [how] the first ladies by nature have this secondary role to their husbands. But, one of the goals that we have at our site, which promotes all of the first ladies, is to let the first ladies stand on their own.”
Many of the women panelists at the Presidential Sites Summit hope their messages of first ladies’ stories break through in the future planning of libraries and exhibits. They also discussed efforts to incorporate first ladies’ stories into historic sites dedicated to their husband's legacies, in ways that represent their independent, albeit intersectional life trajectories.
“We need to amplify these stories,” says Brooke Clement, director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, who also worked in the George H. W. Bush Library.
Then there was this memory Clement recounts of former First Lady Barbara Bush reacting to site designs of the library featuring exhibits dedicated to the former first lady:
“‘Oh, I do exist’.”
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