Washington -- As first lady, Nancy Reagan studiously avoided taking public positions on controversial issues like abortion. Her husband was against it, and she certainly was not going to differ with him in public.
But last night Mrs. Reagan felt free to speak her mind, telling a George Washington University class that while she personally opposes abortion, she supports a woman's right to choose.
"I'm against abortion," she said in response to a question from instructor Carl Sferrazza Anthony, who is teaching a class titled "The President's Spouse." "On the other hand, I believe in a woman's choice."
Mrs. Reagan left the meeting room of the Mayflower Hotel immediately after the 90-minute question-and-answer session with Mr. Anthony, who was once a speechwriter for her, and was not available for further comment.
But her remarks were not entirely a surprise. In a book by former White House chief of staff Donald Regan, she was quoted as once saying, "I don't give a damn about the Pro-Lifers," and demanding that all mention of abortion be removed from the president's 1987 State of the Union address.
Mrs. Reagan's comments about abortion were the highlight of what was otherwise a low-key, chatty appearance before about 600 students who had paid $375 for the 12-week course. Three other first ladies, Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton, are scheduled to appear over the next three months.
Mrs. Reagan, dressed in a black and white patterned dress, said she was most proud of her fight against drug abuse while first lady. Her darkest days, she said, came when her husband was shot in April 1981 and in November 1987, when she underwent breast cancer surgery the same month her mother died.
Mrs. Reagan also acknowledged that she and the media rarely got along, but added the fault lay on both sides.
She suffered from the media's preconceptions about her, she said, and their attacks put her on the defensive. "If somebody hits me, I tend to pull back. That may be seen as being snobbish or something."
Mrs. Reagan came under fire several times during the Reagan presidency, most notably when Donald Regan revealed in a book that she regularly consulted astrologers and sometimes urged her husband to base his schedule on their prognostications.
First ladies often find themselves the target of criticism as they search for a role and an identity under a harsh spotlight.
Probably the most influential government position without any written job description, the title of first lady has conveyed a wide range of meaning over the past 200 years. For some first ladies, like Bess Truman, it has meant an almost unobtrusive presence, with duties limited to the job of White House hostess.
Others have used the title to wield tremendous power, sometimes to the chagrin of official Washington. Hillary Rodham Clinton is only the most recent example; others have included Eleanor Roosevelt and Edith Wilson.
The course, designed and taught by Mr. Anthony, began Sept. 13 with a historical overview of the first ladies and their role. From there, it focuses on the years 1961 to 1994, looking particularly at the growing political clout of first ladies.
"My goal is to place in a political context the contemporary role of the president's spouse . . . in terms of political power and social influence," says Mr. Anthony, author of the two-volume "First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents' Wives and Their Power, 1789-1990."
It is a timely subject given the intense public interest in Mrs. Clinton's role as one of her husband's chief advisers. Mrs. Clinton, who was put in charge of crafting the administration's sweeping and unsuccessful health-care reform proposal, has been far more open in wielding power than her predecessors in the White House.
Sponsored by GW's Office of Marketing and Continuing Education, "The President's Spouse" certainly has proven popular. Originally limited to 300 students, the course was filled within 48 hours. University officials doubled the class size and moved it to a more spacious off-campus location, but still had to turn away 50 to 100 potential students.
Although the first ladies are being paid to appear, all have agreed to donate their fees to charity, a university spokeswoman said.
In addition, relatives or people who have worked closely with other first ladies since 1961 have agreed to appear. These include Letitia Baldrige, chief of staff to Jacqueline Kennedy; Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of Lady Bird Johnson, and Susan Ford, daughter of Betty Ford.
Edith Mayo, curator of the First Ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, is a two-fold participant in "The President's Spouse," as both lecturer and student. Much of what Mr. Anthony is doing in his class, she says, is reflected in changes made over the last several years to the museum's exhibit.
"Of course, there have been women who have been interested in the policy aspects of the administration all the way through, going back to Abigail Adams," says Ms. Mayo, curator of the Smithsonian exhibit since 1991. But historically, she explains, the first lady's role has been as "hostess of the nation, but also as a sort of social arbiter for the upper and middle class."
That role has been changing, she notes, particularly in the last 30 years -- culminating with Mrs. Clinton, whose prominence has been both a bane and a blessing for her husband's presidency.
"I think Mrs. Clinton has given a new visibility as well as [created a new] controversy concerning the role of the first lady," Ms. Mayo says. "Maybe any woman who had had a career and came to the White House would have brought [those issues] to the fore."