Baking cookies doesn't fit first ladies' job description


Washington -- Almost from the start, first ladies rarely have been content to quietly sit in the White House and bake cookies and have teas.

Many citizens of the fledgling nation were "very critical of Abigail Adams," the influential wife of the second president, says Edith Mayo, curator of the Smithsonian Institution's new exhibit on presidential wives. "Some called her 'Mrs. President,' which was definitely not praise."

Nearly 150 years later, the outspoken wife of Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was so controversial a public figure that Republicans wore campaign buttons declaring Don't Want Eleanor Either."

These private powers are examined in "First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image," which opens Sunday at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. The new exhibit will include a display of first ladies' inaugural gowns, which had been removed for repairs. The gowns had been the museum's most popular exhibit since its opening 23 years ago.

"We hope it will be again," said Ms. Mayo.

The historic dresses are the centerpiece of the expanded exhibit which shows how the wives of presidents have both mirrored and molded notions about American women and their roles in society.

The revamp is "long overdue," said Carl Anthony, author of the two-volume "First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents' Wives and Their Power."

From the elegant parties of Dolley Madison to the designer fashions of Nancy Reagan, the display still reflects on the frivolities of first ladies. But it also shows how practically every presidential wife merged political substance and social conscience with her personal style.

"Traditionalists may think it goes too far," said Mr. Anthony, who served as historical consultant for the project. "But feminists may think it doesn't go far enough."

The exhibit is stocked with hundreds of historic photographs, paintings and artifacts -- assorted White House china and furniture, campaign memorabilia, jewelry, everything from Martha Washington's stationery to Jackie Kennedy's A-line mini dress to the camouflage jacket Barbara Bush wore when visiting the troops of Operation Desert Storm.

In a section called "Inventing the First Ladies' Role," the exhibit takes a cultural look at how the job evolved for the nation's hostess and mistress of the White House.

It gives "a sense of how the first lady fits into American pop culture," said Ms. Mayo. "In the late 1800s, for instance, Frances Cleveland sort of became the Princess Di of her time. She was 21 when she married the president [Grover Cleveland]."

However, like Hillary Clinton, the lawyer-wife of Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, some first ladies have chafed at the arbitrary restrictions of being a political spouse.

"I am more like a state prisoner than anything else," complained Martha Washington, who was called "Lady Washington" while George was president. The term "first lady" was initially used to describe Dolley Madison.

All the living former first ladies helped raise money for the exhibit and donated items, said Ms. Mayo. First lady Barbara Bush is scheduled to be on hand for a preview of the display today.

Which first lady . . .

1. Justified her expensive wardrobe by explaining: "I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with such critical curiosity."

2. Was such a political force that she told her newly elected husband, "I have got you the presidency. What are you going to do with it?"

3. Raised eyebrows by buying expensive china for the White House.

4. Edited her husband's speeches but never gave an interview herself.

4 5. Was briefly a fashion model as a young woman.

6. Said "a first lady is in a position to know the needs of the country and do something about them. It would be a shame not to take advantage of that power."

7. Said of her decision to remain in the background as a wife and mother, "I was happy and thankful for the privilege of tagging along. . . ."

8. Took a whistle-stop campaign trip on a train for her husband.

9. Was praised as "the bravest woman in the universe" for her behavior after her husband was assassinated.

PD 10. Served as first lady for her uncle, bachelor James Buchanan.


1. Mary Todd Lincoln.

2. Florence Harding.

3. Julia Grant.

4. Bess Truman.

5. Julia Tyler.

6. Rosalynn Carter.

7. Mamie Eisenhower.

8. Lady Bird Johnson.

9. Lucretia Garfield.

10. Harriet Lane.

"First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image" opens Sunday at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in Washington. The museum, at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is free.

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