The Evolution Of The First Lady History Essay

In the history of the United Sates there has always been the President and his committee. Behind this stood the First lady. The First Lady of the United States is a position held by a controlled, confident and strong willed woman. In the early history of the United States the First Lady was a behind the scenes character, but not all early First Lady’s views and opinions were as unnoticed as her. Although there was a restriction of women’s rights, some First Ladies ignored those imitations as much as possible and exceeded past her potential. And as time went on and women’s rights grew, First Ladies started to emerge out into society. Once the status of women started to change, so did that of the First Lady. Her role started as a domestic position developing to a public figure then to a political or public celebrity, and eventually to a political activist. This transfer from new role to new role was brought by the long and hard fight for women’s right of equality. Although the role was set for the first lady, the person that filled that spot often didn’t allow what she was restricted to do and not do define her as who she was socially and politically. Many women found loop holes on how to get their opinions out, while others collided into the glass ceiling, and had to stay there until their rights allowed them to continue where they stopped. The role of the First Lady started as a domestic, behind the scene type of role, but as time went on and the status of women evolved so did the role of the First Lady.

In colonial America, some were still considered inferior by law; women, one of those considered inferior, were restricted to domestic roles and denied the right to be individuals. In the 17 and 1800s women’s rights lacked any depth and practically any existence at all, but gradually they began to gain rights. In 1776 when the United States became any independent country, women were not only considered physically inferior to men but also intellectually. At this time in early and colonial America, women’s rights depended on her social status. If a woman was single and called, “femes soles” she had the right to buy and sell property, and be dependent upon herself. But once a woman was married she lost her right to even own property, and was forced into a male dominant household and society. The impact of the lack of rights and of the First Ladies was evident during the 17 and 1800s. Martha Washington was the first First Lady of the United States, and she played her designated role well. Being the First Lady during the start of the nation, and having a husband who’s was “undefined,” her role was “even less clear”. Martha Washington was known for “having a mind of her own”, but she “gave no evidence of playing anything other than the hostess.” Although the job of the First Lady was very domestic due to the amount of women’s rights, Abigail Adams was an exception because he was capable of exceeding past her expectations as a first lady. Abigail Adams, with the help of her husband, became an active First Lady whose opinion mattered. Found in a letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams she writes, “so much for politics. Now for our own domestic affairs.” That quotation from the letter acts as clear evidence that Abigail, unlike other First Ladies of her time and the role set for her, was involved in political affairs in addition to her “own domestic affairs.” The relationship between Abigail and John was not like that of most husbands and wives of that time period. Their relationship was open and non-restrictive, as shown through a letter they shared on April 16, 1764. “Do you approve of that speech?” questioned Mrs. Adams. This gave proof that she did take on a political role in their household, and even wrote speeches from John to read. Abigail Adams was the second First Lady of the United States. Sadly enough if it weren’t for the lack of women’s rights, Abigail Adams would have been a Hilary Clinton or Michelle Obama of the 17 and 1800s. Although the role she obtained was constrained by society and law, her political values and questions of male dominance and other issues illustrated her ways of breaking out from the boundaries she was placed within, allowing her to reach an entirely different level.

During this evolution of society the First Lady and women in general began to move from seen, but not heard to seen, heard, and publicly known women. Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction, started this trend of public women, rather than their previous “behind the scenes” role. Mary Todd’s emergence into the public came with the women’s, in general, coming out as well. During the Civil War women became necessary for tasks like manufacturing and farming. Their quick change in roles created new views of women in society. The growing trust of women became evident through the respect they received. Abraham Lincoln’s openness to Mary allowed her to become a strong woman for the public. Mary Todd Lincoln’s strength and knowledge created a positive and strong image for women. During the Gilded Age there was a laze affaire government. This absence of administration led to monopolies, which lead to many jobs. At this time women started to work. Although their pay was of minimum wage, it was a step up from their domestic lives. As soon as the United States entered into the Progressive Era everything started to change for the better. Within this era women were starting to be noticed. Organizations were being formed for Women’s Rights, and it was a way for women to start their “movement forward” in society. Women became more educated and maintained more permanent jobs. This growing involvement of women in society started to create a need for women. Especially during World War I, the need for women struck again. Just like during the Civil War, the women were need during World War I. This time women took men’s jobs of making weapons and became the main source of income for households. Edith Galt Wilson was the First Lady throughout this time of societal growth. Edith Wilson was Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, and she was much more sophisticated than other women he had been around. Her combination of “a good measure of exuberant independence with sufficient amounts of the subservience ” aided her into becoming an effective public woman figure. Before she married Wilson she wasn’t too familiar with politics, but as she fulfilled the role as first lady that completely changed. Edith Wilson became very involved in the war effort, as did many women of that day. She placed herself in charge of knitting sweaters for soldiers, and cutting costs of the white house for the soldiers as well. The involvement of Edith in national affairs was new for most Americans. To see a woman apart of such “serious” business was unimaginable. Once the war ended Edith became an International woman, traveling to France with her husband for political issues. She was a public figure for women, and from a first hand account she “was a First Lady to be proud of.” Due to the growth of the society and women’s rights, this positive opinion of Edith was present. Once Woodrow Wilson had a stroke, her entire life began to change, but the changes were only possible for the reason of the changing rights of women. A housekeeper at the White House called Edith the “Assistant President,” and in addition to that when writing a letter to the President, Mr. Woodrow Wilson people often addressed the letter, “Dear Mrs. Wilson.” In 1920 women gained the right to vote. At that same time Edith Wilson was the First Lady, and the “surrogate President.” The clear evolution of women in the society truly affected the role of the First Lady. If it weren’t for the increase in women’s rights in the early 1900s, Edith Wilson’s time as First Lady would have remained very domestic, but due to the changes of society, Edith Wilson became a public figure for women, and a whole new image in society for others. At the end of Edith’s time as First Lady, society as a whole started to evolve slowly but surely. It soon came to be known as the roaring 1920’s. This time period was a breaking point for women and their acceptance and image among society. The Roaring 1920’s was a time of Prohibition and Speak Easies, as well as Bootleggers. These terms were what made the 1920’s so infamous. At this time women’s social lives grew from practically nothing to that of a socialite’s. Women became flappers and very appealing to men, and more sensual. This evolution of society, especially the women within it had a definite affect on the First Lady and any dominant women’s roles. Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady in 1933, post the “Roaring” ’20’s, and the stock market crash. Even before she became First Lady she made it pretty “clear that she meant to break some precedents if her husband won.” From the start this showed the type of First Lady she would be, and how the role would change. Because of the new ways of women and organizations like The League of Women Voters and the Women’s Trade Union League, the responsibility of the First Lady took a change for the better. Eleanor held her own news conferences where she not only advocated about “women’s rights and well-being,” but also discussed many topics and did many things beyond that. The emergence of women in society of the early 1900’s created a new sense of being and confidence for women. This new sense of confidence lead to public achievements made by the remarkable ladies, Mary Todd Lincoln, Edith Galt Wilson, and Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped fulfill and change the role of the First Lady.

As time passed and as customs changed women, especially First Ladies women began to exceed past their forgotten roles of society, and became political and social icons. World War II dominated the 1940’s and 50’s. This domination lead to the “great exodus of women” from their homes to their places of work. In the 1950’s when men began to return from war, they went back to work, sending the women back home, but not without a taste of independence. This statement foreshadows what was to come for women’s history, but before then society and interests began to change. Because of the knowledge of the rest of the world, many soldiers came home and appealed for change. Fashion, entertainment, and media became very popular, expanding many people’s knowledge. This “new” society was the start of change for the nation. This evolved nation activated a change in the views, rights, and roles of women. Because of the women’s vanishing domestic role and their fight for their rights, women, especially First Ladies, evolved into social and political icons. Previous to her rein as First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy was awarded the “high fashion’s vote” for being a fashion icon. Jackie Kennedy’s “fantastically chic” sense of style and her “multilingual” skills not only appealed her to the public as a fashion icon, but society’s ideal woman. Her appeal to the public was not a one-way street; she was “deeply appreciative” of the public and their support, especially after her husband, John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Her deep appreciation for the public was shown through a quotation she placed on the back of her deceased husband’s prayer card. Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy proved that due to the changes in interests and ideals of society, the role and image of the First Lady evolved into a more liberal, socially based iconic role.

Soon after Jacqueline’s residency ended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. This stated that when hiring, promoting, and firing there was to be no discrimination against sex or race. The passing of this series of Civil Rights Acts created a more opportunistic society for women. In addition to Jacqueline Kennedy, Betty Ford was also an icon, but she was more of a political icon. Betty Ford was the First Lady during the late ’70s, and by this time many more pro-women acts had been established. The 1970s, much like the ’60s, were chaotic because of war and the societal evolution, yet many good things like the influence of women’s movement were also present. Just as women had been advocating for more rights throughout the 1960s, they continued to during the 1970s, but now laws were beginning to be passed and rights were beginning to be gained. Women had been pushing the Equal Rights Amendment on the Senate since 1923, and finally through long protests and commitment the amendment was passed. The affect this monumental amendment had on Betty Ford’s role was extraordinary. Betty Ford started out as a woman that “`nobody [knew],’ quickly [becoming] someone who everybody sought to meet.” The reason for the a quick, large leap was her “decision to level with the public.” The affects of the Equal Rights Amendment on her were quite simple; they allowed her to become a public political icon and a voice to the public, because no one could discriminate her because she was a female. Also the ERA gave more confidence in women, and there was no doubt that Betty Ford had confidence, which made it easier for her to be public about her beliefs even if it would raise eyebrows. The reason Betty Ford was looked at as a political icon was because of her “outspoken support of women’s issues,” and her life threatening, personal experiences and family issues, which made her very relatable to American families.

Throughout history women worked their way up through the system, and once they finally hit the glass ceiling they didn’t intend on stopping, instead they intended on exceeding way past it. Towards the end of the ’80s and the start of the ’90s women were equal to men and all others under law, but there was still the talk of a glass ceiling, creating an economic repression for women. This was caused by the thought that male dominance existed. This meant that in order to break that glass ceiling women must try harder and work harder than males to prove themselves equal. Nancy Reagan started out as an “old-fashioned model of womanliness,” but once the economy began to rise, and her husband and she gained more confidence she transformed into a dedicated, hardworking woman, who was often referred to as “indispensable” and “a savvy adviser.” The pressures of the women during the late ’80s and early ’90s had an effect on the role of the First Lady. At this point in history the First Lady could chose what her role should be, and as for Nancy Reagan her choice to be the “boss” and transform her role into an “Associate Presidency” showed how the influence of women’s need to work hard was noticed. Barbara Bush, the next First Lady, dealt with much of the same issues as Nancy Reagan did, and she too took advantage of the situation and became an over achiever. She was very smart and she understood how the election system worked. The affect she had on her husband’s Presidential election was shocking. She focused on the fact that he was a family man, appealing to what most American voters like to see in a President. As an individual Barbara Bush focused on the literacy of America, and dedicated herself to creating organizations and ways of truly helping out the future of America.

Once it hit the mid ’90s Hilary Clinton became the First Lady, and she was the perfect example of a woman who tried and worked as hard as possible to be at the same level as men. She was apart of a new generation, the baby boomer generation. This meant that she grew up in a society where women were always advocating for rights, meaning she was already a confident woman who believed she was at the same level as men. Hilary Clinton from the beginning of her political career “somehow valued her career more than domestic responsibilities.” Hilary Clinton’s commitment to Health Care helped many Americans. Once again the changing role of women at that time from almost equal to entirely equal was shown through the First Lady and her role. Her numerous amounts of political victories were evidence proving that. Because of the opportunities she was presented with, Hilary Clinton was able to achieve all that she desired, unlike fellow First Ladies, Abigail Adams and Marry Todd Lincoln who were restricted by society. Thus the status and rights of women affect the role of the First Lady during that specific time period.

Michelle Obama the current First Lady is very successful, which would not be as noticed if she was placed in the 1850s. She is a head advocator or preventing childhood obesity. Through the use of technology, she is able to inform adolescents about the hazardous effects of obesity. The amount of successful women and the amount of women in college has grown by a lot over the past few years. Michelle Obama doesn’t allow anything to stop her. This quality has been something that woman have more now than in the past, because of the modern times she grew up in. Michelle Obama, a loving and successful woman over achieves and continues to move forward for others and for herself.

Throughout history women have evolved from inferior beings into successful, dominant women. In early America, the First Lady was often the only recognizable woman, but now that has evolved to the point where the United Sates has a close to equal number of successful women and men. The words, First Ladies “aren’t elected and they don’t receive a salary,” but “they’ve all been heroes” belonged to the intelligent Ronald Reagan. This quotation helps illustrate how important the First Lady is to society, when she isn’t even personally chosen. The domesticity of the original First Lady evolved into the remarkable women that change the country. Thus through the evidence of each First Lady mentioned, it is safe to conclude that the changing status of women has affected the role of the First Lady throughout American history.

Annotated Bibliography:

“1950’s Society.” US History 1950-1975. Accessed March 10, 2011.

This website contains general information about the society of the 1950’s. Its information is helpful when setting up ways to show how society did change from the early 1900’s to the mid 1900’s.

“Abigail Smith Adams: Notable Women.” Archiving Early America. (accessed February 6, 2011).

This website has many summaries of a first ladies’ lives and accomplishments. It is a good website to get an understanding on which category the first lady fits under. It mainly states facts not too many article with proof. This website is good to get an understanding of things.

“Chronology of the Equal Rights Amendment, 1923-1996.” National Organization for

Women. (accessed March 10, 2011).

This website contains information on active women’s movements during the 1970’s. It is good to refer to when writing about the effects the women’s movements and gaining of rights have on the role of the First Lady, and in this case, Betty Ford.

“First Lady Michelle Obama.” The White House.

first-lady-michelle-obama (accessed March 10, 2011).

This website is about Michelle Obama and all of her achievements. It also shows the type of person she is which is very helpful when describing all her accomplishments.

“Women’s Rights Convention.” New York Daily Times, June 5, 1852. (accessed February 27, 2011).

This newspaper article on the Women’s Rights Convention is a secondary source containing what was brought up at that Convention of 1852. This shows how long women have been fighting to be equal above the law, and just what they have been fighting for.

Adams, Abigail Smith. “Letter from Abigail Smith Adams to John Adams, April 16,

1764.” Letters of Mrs. Adams, The Wife of John Adams, 3rd ed., vol. 1 (1764): 208, (accessed February 27, 2011).

This letter is a primary source from Abigail Adams to her husband. This contains information about a speech she wrote, and John Adams approval of it. This is proof that John Adams listened to what his wife had to say. It also contains Abigail Adams questioning women’s rights. This couldn’t be used for quotations and definitely evidence of the type of first lady Abigail Smith Adams was.

Adams, Abigail Smith. “Letter from Abigail Smith Adams to John Adams, August 15,

1774.” Familiar Letters of John Adams and Abigail Adams During the Revolution (1876): 424, (accessed March 6, 2011).

This letter is a primary source of Abigail Adams. This is a letter he sent to her husband, John Adams during the Revolution. I this letter she wrote about political matter, and the political matters she wrote about came before the domestic affairs. This letter acts as evidence for how Abigail Adams branched far out away from her expectations.

Anthony, Carl. “First Lady of Candor.” The Washington Post, April 8, 1993, (accessed February 27, 2011).

This newspaper article of the interview of Betty Ford contains useful information. Betty Ford, 75 years old in this interview expresses her opinion on Hilary Clinton, and the type of First Lady Hilary Clinton was, as well as revealing information about herself while she was the First Lady. This secondary source shows how Hilary Clinton was classified as a Political Activist.

Anthony, Susan B. “Women’s History: Suffrage.” The Gilder Lehrman Collection,

November 7, 1901, eb.exe?request=record;id=AF7DC2FA-72CE-4173-B24C-692090183440;type =301 (accessed February 27, 2011).

This image of a document about women’s rights is a primary source containing information about how much women did for their rights. This also shows what they have done, and how much women’s rights meant to people at that time. This document is from 1901, the Progressive Era, when women were actually gaining rights.

Bender, Marylin. “‘ The Woman Who’…… Wins High Fashion’s Vote Is Jacqueline

Kennedy.” New York Times, July 15, 1960. (accessed February 27, 2011).

Although this newspaper article is before she became the First Lady, this Secondary Source depicts the fashion icon Jacqueline Kennedy was very well. This newspaper article is about the Fashion Award she won, showing that Jacqueline Kennedy was more a celebrity for the public rather than a political icon. This article would be very useful to give evidence on the type of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was.

Bethune, Mary Jane McLeod. “Letter from Mary McLeod Bethune to Eleanor Roosevelt,

April 22, 1941.” Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World, 120-121. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999, http://solomon.nwld.alexande sp/philo// 509.4517 (accessed February 27, 2011).

This primary source is a letter sent to Eleanor Roosevelt from Mary Bethune. In this letter Mary Bethune is asking and telling Eleanor Roosevelt problems and solutions about people and cases in the United States. Mary Bethune is asking Eleanor Roosevelt to do something about things. This shows that Eleanor Roosevelt was powerful and had a role that stretched beyond the White House’s social life. Bethune, Mary Jane McLeod. “Letter from Mary McLeod Bethune to Mrs. Harold V.

Caroli, Betty Boyd. First Ladies. 2nd ed. Garden City, New York: Oxford University

Press, Inc., 1987.

This is a book written about all the First Ladies and different groups they are classified in by decades and their achievements. This book can act as a primary source because it contains many quotations from the First Ladies, as well as first hand views of the First Ladies roles.

Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia. “Women’s History in America.” Women’s

International Center. 1994, (accessed March 8, 2011).

This website contains information about women’s history, and they way people thought about them in early America and present day America.

Gillis, Charles. “American Cultural History 1970 – 1979.” Lone Star College – Kingwood. (accessed March 10, 2011).

This website about the society of the 1970’s contains information on the involvement in society. It also gives a summary of the decade, which gives the reader knowledge about the time period.

Goodwin, Sue. “American Cultural History 1940 – 1949.” Lone Star College – Kingwood. (accessed March 10, 2011).

This website contains information on the society of the 1940’s and the roles of women. It was good for the knowledge, as well as the evidence it gives for the 1940’s.

Lincoln, Abraham. “To: Mary Todd Lincoln.” Lincoln’s last letter to Mary. April 2, 1865.

City Point, Virginia. The Gilder Lehrman Collection. http://gilderlehrman.pastper;id=8BACD614-6AD6-44EE-B68C-464269554852;type=301 (accessed February 27, 2011).

This document was that last letter that President Lincoln sent to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. This primary source shows how much President Lincoln shared with his wife, which has an effect on the type of first lady she was. This document could be used as evidence to show what type of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln was.

Milligan, 1946.” Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, to Harold V. Milligan, 1946.” Mary

McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World, 183. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. (accessed February 27, 2011).

This Letter is a secondary source about Eleanor Roosevelt. This letter is between two women speaking about how a Council recognized outstanding women in the United States, and Eleanor Roosevelt was named one of those outstanding women. This letter contains important evidence of the type of woman Eleanor Roosevelt was.

Rogers. Cartoon. Feminist at Sea.

my-head-on-the-glass-ceiling/ (accessed March 10, 2011).

This is a political cartoon about the glass ceiling. It shows that the man believes in male dominance, even over his most beloved woman in his life, hi wife.

Ruth, Janice E. “Manuscript Division Dolley Madison, Lucretia Garfield, and Edith

Wilson.” The Library of Congress American Memory. ammem/awhhtml/awmss5/madi son.html (accessed February 6, 2011).

This website contains many facts about three different first ladies and also many primary and secondary sources. This is a good example of what the website contains; a summary of the first lady’s life and accomplishments, and primary and secondary resources of that First Lady’s.

Salmon, Marylynn. “The Legal Status of Women, 1776-1830.” History Now, 2006. torian3.php (accessed March 2011).

This website contains valid information on the status of women throughout American History. This helps with a timeline of what happened when.

United Press International. “Mrs. Kennedy Changes Prayer Card.” The Washington Post,

Times Herald, January 2, 1964. (accessed February 27, 2011).

Although this secondary source is post John F. Kennedy’s assassination, it still is a clear representation of the type of person and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was. This newspaper article is about how Jacqueline Kennedy changed the image of John F. Kennedy on his Prayer Card, and the message she left on the back of it. The message she left is a personalized message to the public. This can be used as evidence on how Jacqueline Kennedy could be classified as a public celebrity First Lady.

Ware, Susan. “American Women: INTRODUCTION.” The Library of Congress

American Memory. 2001. http://me /~ammem_Obu3::@@@mdb=rbpebib,mcc,nawbib,suffrg,mnwp,rbcmillerbib,aw h,awhbib (accessed February 6, 2011).

This website has clear description of the role of women during different time periods and also on how the roles changed. It also links the women roles to political aspects. This specific page only contains and summary of facts, but the website also contains many primary sources, and secondary sources.

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