Emory Report

 October 13, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 8

First ladies: the busy
women behind powerful men

What do Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosalynn Carter and Eva Peron have in common? While the first two may be obvious-both were first ladies of the United States-the third is less so, most likely due to Peron's checkered reputation. Each had a husband who rose to the highest office in the nation, but each also had a husband who expressed a great deal of affection publicly for his wife, and each of their husbands encouraged his wife's civic and political activity, said Joyce Jones in her lecture, "First Ladies, First Loves," on Sept. 24.

"They are married to men in positions of power but also men who in many ways don't compete with them," she said. "These husbands could have pushed them aside, but encouraged [them]. And it helped the husbands to have wives who were so active."

Jones asked her mostly female audience, "How many of you have dreamed of being married to the president of the United States?" No one raised a hand. That's the point, Jones asserted. Few first ladies knew when they married that their husbands' ambitions would take them that far. "Many first ladies were unhappy or anxious-or didn't want to be there," she said.

Harry Truman termed living in the White House "the big white jail." His wife, Bess, was no shrinking violet, but she was determined not to conduct herself as actively as her predecessor Roosevelt did. As a result, said Jones, Eleanor Roosevelt's social papers take up some 500 cubic feet of space in Franklin Roosevelt's presidential library while Bess Truman's take up one linear foot in her husband's archives.

Jones recounted that Richard Nixon once said, "Any lady who is first lady likes being first lady. I don't care what they say, they like it."

"Despite this assertion, Pat Nixon was unhappy," said Jones. "She seemed most unhappy."

As seems appropriate, the term "first lady" originated with Martha Washington. The Washington press in those days was still influenced by the British class structure, Jones explained. "It seemed almost natural for her to be called Lady Washington," she said. "But she didn't like 'Lady Washington,' and so it was changed to the 'first lady' and has continued since."

The three first ladies Jones concentrated on in her speech had very different leadership styles, most likely influenced by their childhoods. Each had a father who died young. Roosevelt always seemed older than her years ("I was a solemn child without beauty," she wrote of herself. "I seemed like a little old woman, entirely lacking in the spontaneous joys and mirth of youth."); Carter, who was a class valedictorian, married young-at age 18-and married her best friend's brother. Her mother-in-law, Lillian Carter, once said of her: "She can do anything in the world with Jimmy. He listens to her; he thinks she has a great mind." Jimmy Carter himself has said, "We were full partners in every sense of the word."

Peron was the illegitimate daughter of a prominent man. When he died, she was not allowed to attend his funeral. That probably set the stage for her attitudes about class structure, said Jones. "She redistributed the money of the wealthy to the poor. With these fines she built hospitals, schools, orphanages, homes for the elderly and unwed mothers," Jones said. "She campaigned successfully for women's rights in Argentina. She voted almost from her deathbed for the first time."

Peron, said Jones, was "certainly one of the few international women who had as much power while never [actually holding] office, and she willed that power."

Roosevelt, who is considered perhaps the greatest first lady, struggled with the notion of the first lady's role-much like her current successor, Hillary Clinton. "All of Eleanor's relatives told her that a woman's place was not in the public eye, and she should just be a mother," Jones said. As a nation, we struggle with our expectations of the presidential spouse as well, said Jones. That's why Clinton's highly active role in her husband's first administration has been scaled back greatly in his second.

-Stacey Jones

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