Americans know a lot about the men who have served in the White House as commander in chief. But what about the women behind them? What are the legacies of America's first ladies?
The job of first lady has been described as the second hardest job in America. An ad for the position of First Lady might read something like this:
"Wanted: Remarkable woman willing to work without pay, must offer opinions on subjects from fashion to hunger to peace in the Middle East. Benefits include travel to exotic war-torn locales and endless paparazzi. No experience necessary, perfection preferred."
Of course, there's no real job description for the first lady. Instead the position is shaped by the women who hold it. All of the nation's first ladies have served in their own ways.
"The wildly popular Dolly Madison did not escape censure for her use of cosmetics, and snuff, not to mention spending $11,000 on refurbishing a shabby executive mansion," presidential historian Richard Norton Smith recalled.
Under the Microscope
The job is no bed of roses. First ladies are criticized for the way they dress, how they decorate the White House, and even how they style their hair.
"You know, Mrs. Reagan used to get her hair done every other day," former Reagan social secretary Gahl Hodges Burt said.
"So every other day it looked great and every other day it looked not so great," she said. "And on the days that it didn't look great, I kid you not, we would hear about it. We'd get the phone calls."
Nancy Reagan's former social secretary recalls the day actor Charlton Heston wandered into a state arrival ceremony at the White House.
Despite the scrutiny, first ladies influence policy and play important roles in diplomacy. Their staffs say they have the ability to do things behind the scenes in ways their husbands can't.
For instance, Burt said Nancy Reagan often deflected slings and arrows intended for "the Gipper." She said Nancy also helped facilitate critical talks between President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev during the Cold War.
"People now recognize that there is a person there; there is a brain there," she said.
"What every first lady discovers early on sometimes to her surprise, is just what a remarkable platform she has been given, just how far her voice can carry," Smith said.
"That can be used for all sorts of positive things, but it's also sometimes a warning that if she says something off message or politically controversial, then there might be a price to pay," he explained.
Laura Bush championed women's rights in Afghanistan, pushing for education and preventative health care.
"What I loved most about her is that she never forgot a detail," said Anita McBride, former advisor to President George W. Bush and former chief of staff to Laura Bush.
Barbara Bush's former press secretary tells the story of how President George H. W. Bush's fishing buddy nearly ruined a photo opportunity with two former U.S. presidents and the president of Russia.
"She connected really with people all over the world because she paid attention to who they are and what her environment was and really, really connected," McBride said.
First Lady Michelle Obama
Susan Sher, a long-time friend and former chief of staff to Michelle Obama, said the first lady developed an interest in helping military families after hearing their stories on the campaign trail with her husband.
"That left an impact on her and she was very clear from the very beginning that she wanted to work with military families to ease their burdens," Sher said.
Interest in the current first family is perhaps unprecedented. However, the Obamas aren't afraid to steal private moments in the midst of public events.
"Some of the photos that I've seen where they're sort of taking a private moment in a very public arena is something that I think is important to them, that no matter what else happens, to keep the relationship going," Sher said.
Rosalynn Carter's former director of projects recalls organizing a ride on the Metro for the former first lady.
Taking it on the Chin
The women who have worked for first ladies say the thing that Americans often forget is that the women playing America's hostess also have to deal with the everyday challenges of life.
"Mrs. Reagan had breast cancer," Burt noted. "The president had colon cancer. There was an attempted assassination on him. Her mother died while she was in office."
First ladies must also absorb criticism. McBride recalls watching Laura Bush handle the burden with grace.
"I mean, think about it, the person she cared most for in her life, that she loved so deeply -- yet day to day was pretty brutal," McBride said. "And she was able to create this sanctuary around their family that really was where they derived a great deal of strength."
First Gentlemen on the Horizon?
So what about the day when America welcomes a female president and her first gentleman into the White House?
"I think in our lifetime we may very well see a woman president and then perhaps the title will be retired," Smith said.
"More important, maybe the double standard will be retired, because I guarantee you people won't pay as much attention to what the first gentleman wears or how he styles his hair," she added.
"And then maybe that will be the ultimate success of the modern women's movement that everyone is assessed by the same standards," she said.
Until then, America's first ladies will continue to shape their un-elected office and leave their unique marks on American history.
McBride recently organized these former White House staffers and historians for a First Ladies Conference at American University to examine the legacies of America's first ladies. The event was so successful she's planning a curriculum on the subject in conjunction with American University.
--Published May 5, 2011.