Michelle Obama's Recent Legislation: A Legacy Begun March 15, 1912 by Nellie Taft

President Obama signs child nutrition bill as the First Lady looks on, December 19 2010

President Obama signs child nutrition bill as the First Lady looks on, December 19 2010.

It was a grey dress. Enough said.More vital to the long-term interests of the nation than the clothes she wore one particular day this past December is the historic milestone Michelle Obama reached. That day, she joined President Barack Obama at a Washington school as he signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a component of her “Let’s Move!” campaign to stem the dangerously alarming obesity and malnutrition rates among American children.

Her role in the act’s passage was suggested by her words that day and her deeds leading up to it, including her announcing last year a presidential commission’s findings on the depth, causation and consequences of the problem.Although Michelle Obama is usually compared to Jackie Kennedy and others of her predecessors in the context of their fashions, the media fixation on the style of a First Lady tends to eclipse the substance of their policy advocacy, and ultimately distort the accuracy of their historical perception.

With passage of the child nutrition bill, however, Michelle Obama joins the ranks of those First Ladies whose focus on a public issue led to some form of official, federal action.

Nellie Taft, first First Lady to prompt federal action, workplace health and safety standards, March 1912.

Today, in fact, marks the 99th anniversary of the first public disclosure of a First Lady having successfully influenced official federal action.

The March 15, 1912 executive order initiated by Nellie Taft, the first legislation publicly acknowledged as being influenced by a First Lady.

Under the headline “Aided by Mrs. Taft” the March 17, 1912 Washington Post reported that executive order number 1498, signed by President William Howard Taft, initiated the first health and safety regulations in the federal workplace. Nellie Taft had been working with the National Civic Federation for just such action even before she became First Lady in 1909, making unannounced visits into federal buildings with inspectors to assess the conditions.

Ellen and Woodrow Wilson

Ellen and Woodrow Wilson.

Two and a half years later, Ellen Wilson made inspection tours of the deplorable housing conditions of Washington’s poorest residents in back alley dwellings. She believed the structures should be demolished and new housing provided, subsidized by the federal government.

Her effort resulted in the 1914 Slum Clearance Act, which Congress passed quickly to grant the final wish of the terminally-ill First Lady.

The housing was destroyed but nothing was provided to shelter those who were displaced, funding delayed by the onset of World War I.

Florence Harding and her Airedale Laddie Boy who she used as a symbol on animal rights issues

Florence Harding and her Airedale Laddie Boy who she used as a symbol on animal rights issues.

In 1923, suffragist First Lady Florence Harding made no secret to reporters of the fact that she was then lobbying Republican House Majority Leader Franklin Wheeler Mondell of Wyoming to help establish the first federal women’s correctional facility. Her husband died in office that year, and she died fifteen months later. Her success was posthumous: in 1927 Alderson Federal Prison for women opened in West Virginia.

Along with equal rights for women and care of disabled veterans, “the Duchess” was also a leading national figure in the movement for humane treatment of animals. When she learned the Commerce Department was permitting the slaughter of seals which interfered with fishing, she intervened with the fisheries commissioner to push for some legislative change: “It is difficult for me to believe that the protection of the fish requires the sacrifice of these seals.”

Eleanor Roosevelt’s overall constituency consisted of those subject to discrimination or in dire conditions. A key advisor during the formulation of her husband’s New Deal agencies, created to alleviate some effects of the Great Depression he inherited as president in 1933, she advocated creation of the National Youth Administration. She also challenged sexism in the newly created Civil Works Administration, Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, and racism in the Resettlement Administration. Publicly expressing what legislation she supported, the First Lady encountered resistance even from the President. She publicly advocated passage of an Anti-Lynching Bill but failed to win FDR’s support since he feared alienating southern Democratic support for his agenda. Her taking charge as untitled director of “Arthurdale,” a West Virginia community of resettled coal mining families through the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act’s Federal Subsistence Homestead Division was a mixed success. Cost overruns prompted attacks from Congress, as did her later assuming the unsalaried job as co-director of the Office of Civilian Defense as America prepared for World War II.

At the time, she also battled the State Department and Congress to alter immigration policy through the proposed Wagner-Rogers Bill and a Child Refugee Bill. Neither passed, and she could only help European refugees seeking U.S. asylum individually. Eleanor Roosevelt’s greatest legislative legacy may be her finally convincing FDR to issue Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941. It created a Committee on Fair Employment Practices, banning job discrimination by the government and defense contractors based on “race, creed, color or national origin.”

Dolley Madison.

Harriet Lane.

From the beginning of the presidency, many First Ladies assumed leadership in focusing public awareness on the needs of neglected constituencies or raising private donations to address these: Martha Washington and American Revolutionary veterans, Dolley Madison and orphan girls, Harriet Lane (bachelor Buchanan’s niece) and Native Americans, Mary Lincoln and recently-liberated African-American slaves, Ida McKinley and single or widowed working women. In doing so, however, most were cautious about seeking any official federal support or action.

A former teacher of deaf children, for example, Grace Coolidge brought public attention to the fact that the disability did not preclude full engagement in life. She did this through symbolic gestures, such as appearing in a newsreel with hearing- and sight-impaired advocate Helen Keller to demonstrate lip “reading” but urged no federal programs to aid the hearing-impaired.

Jackie Kennedy consulting on her White House restoration project

Jackie Kennedy consulting on her White House restoration project.

Pat Nixon.

Even those closely associated with a cause have limited public disclosure of their efforts which involved federal action. Jacqueline Kennedy appeared in a televised tour of her White House historic preservation but met privately in 1961 with Republican Senator Clint Anderson to successfully coax his leadership in passing Public Law 87286, which made donated furnishings the inalienable property of the White House. Barbara Bush urged her husband to support the 1989 National Literacy Act, which permitted the use of libraries and other municipal property as evening literacy centers for adults, but turned down the idea of its sponsor Senator Paul Simon to testify on the act’s behalf before Congress. Pat Nixon advocated within the Administration for federal funding of the National Center for Voluntary Action, conferred with its leaders and participated in a public briefing on the center’s objectives, but decided against testifying before Congress for the Domestic Services Volunteer Act’s passage in 1970.

LBJ gives Lady Bird the pen he used to sign her 1965 Highway Beautification Act

A shift came with Lady Bird Johnson’s “Beautification” campaign which encouraged land conservation, reclamation and environmental protection, but also included her Highway Beautification Act. The act was intended to restore the visual experience of natural regional landscapes by removing or limiting roadside billboard advertising from interstate and major highways. States would receive a twenty percent cut in federal highway grants if they refused to cooperate, but the powerful Outdoor Advertising Association of America fought the bill on the premise that it hurt local business. The bill passed on October 7, 1965.

Betty Ford as a former First Lady arrives to testify before Congress on drug and alcohol recovery.

In 1975, Betty Ford became the nation’s most visible advocate for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, lobbying beyond Washington to implore governors, state senators and representatives to permit a vote in their legislatures; only several more states were needed to ratify it to the U.S. Constitution. She continued as the ERA’s most prominent advocate after leaving the White House in 1977 until ratification failed in 1982.

She did testify as a former First Lady, on two occasions – once along with former First Lady Rosalynn Carter regarding mental health and drug recovery insurance policy coverage.

Appointed chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, Rosalynn Carter helped develop recommendations for federal implementation of sweeping mental health care reform legislation. Submitted the Mental Health Systems Act, Rosalynn Carter testified on its behalf before the Senate Subcommittee on Health, on May 15, 1979. It was passed and funded in September 1980.

Rosalynn Carter chairing presidential Mental Health Commission

Rosalynn Carter chairing presidential Mental Health Commission.

Mrs. Carter had other successes. She lobbied Congress for passage of the Age Discrimination Act to do away with mandatory age retirement within the federal workplace, and to raise the limit to seventy in the private sector, and the Older American Act, a funding increase in elderly services, as well as the Rural Clinics Act and Social Security reform to benefit seniors.

Nancy Reagan watches husband sign 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Bill.

While Nancy Reagan didn’t testify before Congress on behalf of her project to combat the growing problem of underage children using dangerous narcotics, she made an unprecedented joint address to the nation on the problem with the President, following his signing of the October 27, 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Bill.

Hillary Clinton being interviewed by the author, 1997

Hillary Clinton being interviewed by the author, 1997

Although Hillary Clinton assumed a less daunting role on policy after her husband’s Administration did not go forward with the health care reform plan which she had led and testified about before Congress in September of 1993, she continued work on federal legislative action supported or imitated by the Administration. She was instrumental in the creation and passage of the 1997 Children’s Health Insurance Program, and successfully sought research funding increases for illnesses such as prostate cancer and childhood asthma at the National Institute of Health. She cited the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 as the proudest achievement she shepherded. The Adoption Act had her active in both public and private, from attending conferences and events on the issue, holding policy meetings with Health and Human Service officials and private foundation leaders, helping to draft policy recommendations, and lobbying members of Congress. Hillary Clinton led a second effort, the Foster Care Independence bill, to help older, unadopted children transition to adulthood. With a lifelong interest in regional American history, she also initiated the Save America’s Treasures program, a national effort that matched federal funds to private donations to rescue or restore to completion many iconic historic items and sites. She further worked with Attorney General Janet Reno to create the Department of Justice’s Violence against Women office.

Laura Bush became the first incumbent Republican First Lady to testify before Congress, doing so on behalf of library funding.

However much the public perceived her as a quiet librarian, it was Laura Bush who initiated and then announced the Administration’s 2004 federal spending budget request for a 15 percent increase to $242 million for the nation’s 122,000 libraries and 15,000 museums.

She was further credited with successfully pressing for the creation of a $20 million grant fund to address the nation’s growing shortage of librarians. The full extent of her influence on other policy may continue to emerge.

The same may be true about other policy matters where Michelle Obama has had or continues to have influence. Certainly, her remarks to the nation’s governors last month on the need for support of military families as well as those at the December bill-signing revealed a political savvy in her emphasis on bi-partisanship:

“These are the basic values that we all share, regardless of race, party, religion. This is what we share. These are the values that this bill embodies. And that’s why we’ve seen such a groundswell of support for these efforts –- not just from members of Congress here in Washington, but from folks in every corner of the country. But they’ve come together to support this bill because they know it’s the right thing to do for our kids. And they know that in the long run, it won’t just save money, but it’s going to save lives.”

And she said it in a grey dress.

White House Photo

Michelle Obama speaking after her nutrition bill was signed, December 2010.


Categories: First Ladies, History, Politics, Presidents, The Obamas, Today in FLOTUS History

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3 replies »

  1. Another great piece. I’ve enjoyed the way you’ve shed light on the real influence of the first lady for many years. I would suggest that the fashion choices of presidential spouses is more consequential than we give it credit for. Just as people often downplay the role of official entertaining as the frivolous side of the presidency, it is these kinds of things that give the office color and interest to many who might otherwise be entirely tuned out. That grey dress may attract enough attention that people who wouldn’t have cared much about Mrs. Obama’s message otherwise, learn something new. There’s also an important aspect of leadership that, as time has gone forward, we’ve been less willing to acknowledge. Many, perhaps most, people want to see their leaders, spouses included, living out a life that’s a bit apart. The clothes are all a part of the whole. Michelle Obama, and her predecessors, fulfill many, many roles, one of which is to put forth the best face of America, a not insignificant responsibility. For good or ill, the clothes are a part of that.

    Several years ago when I started work on my book on entertaining at the White House, I received a response to an inquiry from Nancy Reagan’s office. I am sure it was written by a staff member as the letter noted that the role of first lady is about more than just entertaining and nothing further was offered regarding my own letter. Nancy Reagan was the first to recognize that image, whether it be through clothes or entertaining or the White House itself, was a powerful tool to forward her husband’s policies and the interests of the United States.

    I wish more people would read your books on the first ladies, because I think they are very relevant. They really offer insight into the power and influence of the president’s wife, insight that’s not available from other works. Any chance you’ll update them one day? I think they are bound to be the seminal work on first ladies for years to come.

    • As always Jake thanks – sorry for delay, just so busy. I’m not sure I agree on the issue of clothes being ultimately of importance other than as symbols that can be used for political purposes usually as criticism from the political opposition (Lincoln), rarely to make a political statement (Carter wearing her older gubernatorial inauguration outfit as a sign the Administration would not be wasting money) or to draw attention and win popular appeal that might transfer or be shared with the President (Kennedy), but ultimately other than bringing color and curiosity….I think we’ve all gotten tot he point where we think dessert is dinner. And along those lines, I think that state dinners are of far, far greater value in more subtle ways to the political objectives and even possibility of changing history – as a way of displaying great honor on a foreign visitor or someone of the political opposition, as a relaxed setting for serious political discussion but really as perhaps the most effective arena for diplomacy.

      • You know, ultimately, I think we do agree. The uses of fashion that you listed – Kennedy and Carter specifically – are exactly what I was referring to. We also agree on the issue of state entertaining. Anyway, love the article.

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