Five Forgotten Feminist First Ladies

Societal derision of suffragists included the specious argument that those advocating for equal rights did so as angry compensation for not finding love.

Throughout March, many forgotten and overlooked women have been been credited with the bravery, strength, foresight, fairness and honesty they displayed and exemplified in their lifetimes, however belatedly, and who now offer the legacy of example.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Edith Wilson.

As happens with all historical figures, the fullest context of what individuals have said and done on behalf of others is eclipsed into a brief sentence, if that, and they are summarized with a single label. Despite the various biographies written about them or their husbands, many First Ladies have been treated similarly, dismissed, diminished, degraded into a stiff caricature, more often than not recalled by a quirky personal detail or reduced to a trivia question.

Even among presidential historians there is woeful neglect in giving the fullest consideration to what roles they may have played either in terms of marital power or policy matters that forged the presidencies of their husbands.

Known for her emotionalism, Mary Lincoln also implored her husband to view slavery through its human toll.

Still today, in 2018, these presidential spouses tend to be classified under one label or another, but rarely with the complexity that was the truth.

Certainly Jackie Kennedy was a conscientious hostess and became a fashion icon – but she also worked rather subversively with her husband to position his administration favorably in the context of domestic media coverage and international relations.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Michelle Obama, 2009.

Hillary Clinton was an avowed policy advisor, yet she also oversaw the refurbishment of the Blue Room and initiated public displays of contemporary American crafts and sculptures.

Mary Lincoln did suffer from emotional instability that distracted her husband – yet she also successfully guided his grasp of the human dimensions of slavery, rather than just the political.

Mamie Eisenhower and Jacqueline Kennedy speak with Lady Bird Johnson (who faces away from camera).

By simple virtue of the fact that they have all been women, presidential spouses and those like daughters and sisters who served as hostesses in the absence of a wife, were thrust into the impossible expectation of somehow symbolizing all of American womanhood.

Some simply saw themselves in the context of their private lives as wives and mothers.

Others, however, recognized that beyond them personally, they were being held up by the national media and the public as idealizations of their gender. Even before all American women were granted the right to vote in 1920, popular publications referenced First Ladies as the leading woman in the country.

A statue of skeptical and famously feminist First Lady Abigail Adams, one of the few so memorialized.

Those who were most open about their advocating for legal or social equality of women  during their time in the White House have usually been judged as feminists.

Betty Ford, advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment.

And so, rightfully and without hyperbole, the names of Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Clinton are immediately credited for changing their husbands’ perceptions, raising national attention, supporting federal legislation, and initiating administrative programs intended to directly help millions of their countrywomen.

Yet there were many others who have been seemingly ignored or simply forgotten. There are usually two reasons for this; one, the First Lady is identified by their most dominant role and two, no matter how much a First Lady achieved or successfully advocated in any public sphere it could never overcome prevailing perceptions of their husbands having led unsuccessful or controversial presidencies.

Except for Mary Lincoln, second from right, a line of forgotten First Ladies from 1849 through 1869 largely neglected by history: Margaret Taylor, Abigail Fillmore, Jane Pierce, Harriet Lane and Eliza Johnson.

Since they came into public life due to who they had married, First Ladies are viewed as ultimately possessing only derivative power.

Angelica Van Buren.

While that may be a fair judgment it is not a full one. The other half of the truth is that many of their husbands would never have achieved the presidency had they not been married to these particularly intelligent and strong women.

There are more First Ladies forgotten than remembered.

Lou Hoover.

Names like Louisa Adams, Angelica Van Buren, Abigail Fillmore, Lucretia Garfield, Caroline Harrison and Lou Hoover are unknown to all but the most assiduous researchers and readers of presidential history, let alone the fact that they each waged endeavors advancing the equality of women or led efforts to integrate women into the nation’s educational, professional and financial life.

Five, however, seem especially important to emphasize and integrate into the history of the American feminist movement. They are chosen not just for their words and deeds on behalf of American women but also the simple yet important reason that these actions so dramatically contradict the entrenched mythologies about them, a secondary aspect of their lives that even more strongly echoes the disparity faced by their entirely forgotten countrywomen who had no access to power, even within their marriages.

Dolley Madison, 1809-1817

Dolley Madison.

Forever associated with her convivial role as a hostess and democratizing social life in the White House, Dolley Madison also had strong convictions about the need for increased visibility of women in the public realm of political life. When she acknowledged to a niece that “our sex are ever losers when they stem the torrent of public opinion” she spoke from experience, having enduring the sexist premise of a legal challenge for her late, first husband’s inheritance by his brother. She was an especially strong advocate of equal access to higher education for young women and, in forming a friendship with Catholic nuns who taught at a Georgetown academy for girls, often visited the classrooms to encourage their learning. She also took on a role as patron to a new orphanage in the capital city, established specifically for the care of girl and young women orphans, who were less often adopted.

At her weekly receptions, Dolley Madison enforced a gender integration, creating the first social events at which men and women informally mixed.

She pushed to break barriers within the Washington community. She not only held receptions at which she encouraged women to join men, but held separate receptions for the wives of political leaders that were dubbed “dove parties.” The First Lady began attending congressional hearing and Supreme Court trials, leading in a line of other women to become more educated about the legislation and legal cases before two branches of the government.  She likewise integrated a mens-only clubhouse she’d heard served especially good oysters, her wish being conveyed to the owner by the President, and soon followed by other women who gained entry.

Former First Lady Dolley Madison about five years before her 1849 death.

While she couldn’t refuse entrance to her receptions by the French Minister who was known to beat his wife, he was one of the only known individuals that she treated with overt rudeness, while lavishing attention on his wife. While she recognized that “a lady seldom can speak freely to or on the subject of her fancy,” she was blessed to have her ideas and opinions respected by her partner. It was President James Madison who declared that “the saddest slavery of all was that of the conscientious woman….no distinction…should be made between men and women in equality of the mind.” In later life, Mrs. Madison encouraged the earliest efforts of women as authors, biographers and historians, cooperating to help them write and publish their own books. Women around the country wrote to Dolley Madison for guidance and advice, one telling her she was the “representative  of our sex in every female virtue.”

Ida McKinley, 1897-1901

Ida McKinley.

Ida McKinley is inaccurately characterized as simply a invalid dependent on her husband. While he did assume control of her medical care for chronic conditions including seizure disorder, it was partially motivated by his desire to ensure the public never learned about it, the disease then still equated with insanity. Reports of her lack of mental clarity, ironically, were from a period when she was being dangerously over-medicated by her husband. What he did not control, however, were her ideas on the justice of granting women the right to vote and her willingness to express what was, during his presidency, still a controversial viewpoint at odds with his more politically expedient ambivalence on the subject. In fact, among First Ladies, Ida McKinley was one the earliest and strongest advocates of women’s equality and the first incumbent to declare her support of suffrage. In 1901, she even invited national suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony to the private quarters of the White House, presenting her with a huge bouquet of lilies that she wished to be brought to a suffrage convention the following day with the acknowledgement of the First Lady’s support of their effort.

Ida Saxton McKinley attended Brooke Hall in Media, Pennsylvania, a college-level women’s school. (NFLL)

Having been raised under the influence of a father and grandfather who were among the strongest advocates of both slavery abolition and women’s education, she was inculcated with an unconventional attitude at the time – that the more highly educated a woman was, the better her life and those of her family members would be. Her great mentor in youth had been her grammar school teacher Betsy Mix Cowles, founder of the Ohio Women’s Rights Association. Ida’s bond with her teacher’s principals was so intense that she would follow Cowles when she went to teach at the Delphi Academy in New York State, despite placing her in a community hostile to their ideas. By the time she graduated from Brooke Hall, a Pennsylvania finishing school, she had more formal education that any First Lady before her.

Ida McKinley arriving at Mount Holyoke College, where she was awarded a silver cup for her support of women’s education and delivered brief remarks accepting the honor, comparable to latter-day honorary degrees.

She never forgot its importance: during her husband’s presidency, Ida McKinley became the first First Lady to attend the graduation ceremonies of a woman’s college, even agreeing to briefly speak while accepting an award, an honor analogous to latter-day honorary degrees.

Before marriage, Ida McKinley used her skills in finance to assume the position of teller and then acting manager of her father’s bank, on the premise that if she didn’t find the right type of partner to share her life with, she could support herself. While touring Europe before she married, Ida Saxton was enraged to discover the pittance of compensation that young Belgian girls employed in the tedious job of making lace by hand were being paid. Dispensing to those she encountered greater sums to compensate for the value she thought comparable to their effort, she also never forgot that women without the advantages of her family wealth were barely able to survive on their own. As First Lady, she frequently found federal jobs for those single, widowed or divorced women in desperate financial straits, striving to relieve them of their fear of poverty. She was also the most prominent and visible contributor and advocate of the Crittenden House, a charity providing housing, education and employment to indigent women, and further managed to gain congressional funding to help keep it running.

Florence Harding, 1921-1923

Florence Harding.

Florence Harding perhaps remains the most unfairly diminished of all First Ladies; she was as strong a feminist as her successors Roosevelt, Ford and Clinton.

Unlike any previous presidential candidates’ wives, Florence Harding offered her political opinions to the press, most notably her pro-suffrage views. The first First Lady able to vote, she considered that right a foregone conclusion, but went on to address employment, economic, and social equity by using stories from her own life.

As First Lady, she stated that she was “particularly anxious…to help the women of the country to understand their government…I want representative women to meet their Chief Executive and to understand the policies of the present administration.” She honored women’s political groups, women federal workers, and young women graduating from high school and college, both black and white, with White House receptions. She broke an unwritten coda by inviting divorced women to social events. While she did not publicly address the issue of birth control, she refused to condemn the movement for it when pressed by a reporter.

Feminist Florence Harding, about to become the first woman in history to vote for her husband as President, 1920.

Believing firmly in the necessity of physical exercise for women, she hosted a women’s tennis exhibition game on the White House courts. To the Camp Fire Girls, she wrote: “The part that women play in the world has been greatly changed….It has broadened and enlarged and we will all be wise to recognize that a larger consideration for the health and physical advancement of the girls will better fit them for the role they must assume.” While her precarious health prevented her from the vigorous horse riding she enjoyed in earlier years, she did brave the skies to take an airplane ride, the first woman who became a First Lady to dare doing so.

Florence Harding donned a pair of coverall pants to become the first First Lady to fly in an airplane.

She led American women in a national boycott on sugar when prices were too exorbitant for most households, writing that housewives “are the makers of the household budgets, the managers of the homes, which in the final analysis are the end and aim of organized society.” She donated to the creation of a Women’s National Republican Club in New York because, “the women intend to handle the finances themselves.”

Envisioning a “community of women working together under the guidance of other women,” she led a prison reform movement that grew from the harsh experiences of imprisoned women suffragist, joining a diverse consortium that included the American Association of University Women, National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, American Federation of Teachers and Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Florence Harding welcoming women who had achieved the rare distinction of earning a college degree.

The first First Lady to publicly disclose that she was lobbying Congress on behalf of federal legislation, she made the case for the creation of what would become Alderson Reformatory Prison in West Virginia, the first federal correctional institution exclusively for women. Successfully established after her death, it sought to protect women inmates from the exploitation of male inmates and staff, offer a communal setting with provisions for nurseries and childcare, and teach practical skills so inmates could eventually live “without dependence on a man or the community.”

Florence Harding and Madame Marie Curie.

Florence Harding used the White House visit of scientist Madame Marie Curie to illustrate her view of professional women as equal to professional men, and how one could aid the other: “She has been the associate and partner of her husband in their great work of scientific research, and it seemed to me that their relationship was peculiarly ideal and of the sort that must point the way for all of us to the ideal family relationship of the future.”

Florence Harding in her uniform as President of the Girl Scouts with her dog Laddie Boy; she was an outspoken advocate of women achieving physical health through regular exercise.

In another letter – that she did not ultimately send, Florence Harding went so far as to muse that in the future the primary breadwinner of some families would be a woman, although it would predominately remain a male role. She especially believed that the “woman of genius” must have “complete opportunity for the development of her special talents.”

In numerous instances, Florence Harding saw to the appointment of women in politics positions. She also reached out to Alice Robertson, the second woman to be elected to Congress but believed it would take time for more women to rise in elected politics: “The time has passed for discussion about the desirability of having the women actively participate in politics. They are in politics, and it is their duty to make their participation effective….This necessarily means that much and aggressive effort is needed to maintain their interest, and to inform them concerning issues and public problems.”

Florence Harding ignored pressure from the National Republican Party to dissociate herself from the League of Women Voters in their push for for an Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in 1921. And she joined an effort to memorialize the long struggle for women’s suffrage in a U.S. Capitol statue by the National Women’s Party. “Let women know and appreciate the meaning of being an American – free and equal,” she declared to a reporter.

Bess Truman, 1945-1953

Bess Truman.

It was true that Bess Truman despised the public visibility and media intrusions into her private life that being First Lady brought. Nevertheless, at her core as a person, Bess Truman had a subtle but striking feminist sensibility. Working with India Edwards, the National Democratic Committee women’s division executive director, the First Lady encouraged the effort to place qualified women in appointive executive positions within the network of federal commissions and departments in banking, defense, security, justice, foreign affairs.

Bess Truman signing a housewife’s pledge during a food rationing drive.

While Harry Truman was resistant to naming a woman to his Cabinet, he did support the Equal Rights Amendment, as did Bess Truman. When he neglected to realize the importance of women in his presence who had achieved great strides in medical and nuclear science, she pointed it out to him.

In raising a daughter as her only child, Bess Truman avidly encouraged her to obtain a college degree, and then pursue her talents in a series of professional careers as a singer, actress and writer. She took great pride in her daughter’s accomplishments and showed her solid support by attending her concerts and theatrical productions and reading books she authored.

At no time did she pressure or voice expectations that the young woman should marry and start a family, giving Margaret the right to make her own life choices.

Bess Truman in culotte pants, deep-sea fishing with her daughter Margaret.

In a similar vein, she refused to consider moving in with her daughter and family later when, as an elderly widow, she endured a solitary existence; loneliness was worth the effort if it meant she would maintain her autonomy.

Mrs. Truman’s perspective on issues of women’s personal choices reflected both conservative and liberal views, suggesting to her daughter that she supported birth control yet maintaining her belief that divorce was too easily obtainable.

Even as an elderly woman, living to 96 years old, she maintained an interest in women’s issues, offering her support to then-incumbent Betty Ford’s controversial support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

While she had made essentially traditional choices with her own life, Bess Truman remained a lifelong confidante of a schoolgirl chum, Mary Paxton Keeley, who went on to develop a successful career as a writer, encouraging her to exercise her right to determine her life and to resist pressure to conform.

Pat Nixon, 1969-1974

Pat Nixon

The dissonant public discourse on most social issues during the years Pat Nixon was First Lady are in large measure the reason why so much of what she said and did was neglected by the media. A superficial caricaturing  of a feminist as a bra-burning man-hater had taken hold, and there was no way the loyal wife and devoted mother that was now First Lady fit that stereotype – despite the reality that she had lived exactly the life that the movement was seeking to bring equality to.

Pat Nixon’s parents were a German immigrant mother and second-generation Irish Catholic miner Will Ryan

Upon her mother’s death, when Pat was thirteen years old, she assumed responsibility for the household of father and brother, simultaneously proving so diligent a student that she was able to skip a grade.  Not long after, her father contracted tuberculosis, and to cover his medical bills, she took a job at the farmers and dairymen Artesia First National Bank, in southern California where they lived, rising early to clean the floors as a janitor, then returning after high school to work as a bookkeeper. Despite his death just three months after her eighteenth birthday, Pat Nixon pushed herself on, knowing that education was the only way she could find financial freedom. She paid her Fullerton Junior College tuition by working as a typist, accountant, and telephone operator. After driving a couple cross-country during the Depression, she worked as pharmacist at Seton Hospital in the Bronx, New York; after taking a Columbia University radiology course, she became an x-ray technician there. 

Pat Nixon speaking during a campaign fundraiser for her husband’s 1962 California gubernatorial race.

Admitted to the University of Southern California on a partial scholarship, she conducted research for a psychology professor and just kept working: as the university’s vice president’s clerk, cafeteria waitress, librarian, department store assistant buyer, beauty-product tester and movie extra. Pat Ryan received her bachelor’s of science degree in merchandising, the only First Lady to graduate cum laude, and a master’s in education, the first First Lady to earn a graduate degree. Following her marriage, when her husband enlisted in the Navy during World War II, Pat Nixon worked for the Red Cross in Washington, D.C. and then Iowa, where she worked in a bank. After being hired as a price analyst for the federal Office of Price Administration she lived in San Francisco, while her husband served in the Pacific. 

Through the struggle to make her own way and long experience of employment in a wide variety of workplaces, Pat Nixon held personal convictions that made her a more authentic feminist as First Lady than many others seeking to conform to the stereotype. First and foremost she spoke with authority on the issue of equal pay for equal work. 

Pat Nixon was the second First Lady to address a national presidential convention, 1972.

Pat Nixon became the first incumbent First Lady to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment and the first to disclose publicly her pro-choice view on abortion in reaction to questions on the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision.

Before she even began unrelentingly to lobby her husband to name a woman to the Supreme Court, she called for such an appointment publicly.  She became the second incumbent First Lady to address a national convention, (Eleanor Roosevelt was the first), speaking at the 1972 Republican National Convention.

The first First Lady to be publicly seen wearing pants, Pat Nixon strolls with her husband along the Pacific shore, familiar to both since childhood.

Even on the pop culture aspects of Seventies feminism, she led the way. While hosting a women’s health conference in the White House, she spontaneously decided to join a yoga demonstration that had her kicking off her high heels and taking poses to support diaphragmatic breathing. Using the traditional First Lady venue of fashion, she became the first incumbent to not only wear pants in the White House but pose in popular magazines in them. 

When told that there was a new organization called the Women’s National Political Caucus, she mused that it sounded “out there,” yet voiced her support of its goal of getting more women to seek and win political office, emphasizing that she’d support a qualified woman candidate regardless of her political party affiliation.

On a campaign trip to Michigan she made on behalf of US Senate candidate Lenore Romney.

On behalf of the U.S. Senate campaign of her friend Lenore Romney, the First Lady spent a full day campaigning for her in Michigan. While often frustrated with the press coverage of her husband, she was always available to the regular women’s press corps who covered her, often speaking of her respect for their tenacity in overcoming odds to get a White House assignment, often because they were expected to cover both East and West Wing activities.

And Pat Nixon may well be the first First Lady who imported a subtle touch of feminism in the severely traditional cultures of other countries. 

During what proved to be her last foreign trip as First Lady in the summer of 1974, Pat Nixon ignored Saudi Arabia’s strict expectation that women must cover their heads with scarves.

Her belief in the necessity of involving women in their government extended overseas as well and in Yugoslavia, she chided a male political leader there that both his nation’s parliament and the U.S. Congress should have more women members among their representatives. 

During a state visit to Saudi Arabia, Pat Nixon boldly went about that nation without the head covering expected of all women, doing it so decisively that no criticism from the host nation was heard. 

And a Sixth Forgotten Feminist “First Lady”

Mary Regula stands before Eleanor Roosevelt’s portrait at the National First Ladies Library,

This article is dedicated to Mary Regula, founder of the National First Ladies Library, the mission of which, created with this author, was originally intended to not merely honor those women who held the position of First Lady but to conduct original research and writing on the evolving role of First Lady.

During the time of her leadership, the organization disseminated new findings and research to the public through the Internet. It also hosted symposiums that gathered national experts to address specialized topics.

Mrs. Regula dedicated her life to this study, a branch of her larger commitment to women’s history, making her a worthy figure of emulation this Women’s History Month.

The National First Ladies Library was created on the concept developed by librarian Martha Regula (far left) of creating a living, global online resource on evolving scholarship about First Ladies; seen here with her mother Mary (center, in pink) and visitors from Uzbekistan.

Inspired by her daughter Martha’s graduate thesis to create the first bibliography on First Ladies that would be available online and free for anyone in the world to access, the website eventually grew to become the leading global source of biographical information on First Ladies, the venue unique in that it permitted updates of new scholarship and corrections.

Calling upon the support of everyone from her husband, the late U.S. Congressman Ralph Regula to then-incumbent First Lady Hillary Clinton, who launched the website in a White House ceremony in the historic East Room, Mary Regula assiduously fundraised for her mission, speaking around the country to adult and student groups alike.

Mary Regula and Hillary Clinton in the East Room, while the author speaks about the original vision of the NFLL.

It eventually came to also include originally researched and written blog articles on First Ladies addressing subjects that the media and the public expressed an interest in.

Mary Regula speaking at an NFLL fundraiser.

In Canton, Ohio, she would further oversee the restoration of William McKinley’s “presidential home,” which also served the dual purpose of a metaphor about the often hidden power of First Ladies, since he came to live and work in what was, in fact, his wife’s family home.

Mary Regula and her late spouse Ralph, a U.S. Congressman.

She would also create a nearby library and education center, for what was originally intended to serve as a research center for scholars around the world.

Martha Regula would serve as its only Library Director, overseeing the library stacks of hard copy books and created an audio-visual library. 

Mary Regula, far left, and Hillary Clinton present poet, author and educator Gwendolyn Brooks with a “First Woman” award.

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter came to dedicate the Saxton-McKinley House and then-incumbent First Lady Laura Bush to dedicate the center.

Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Barbarta Bush would also join the honorary board.

Recognizing that many First Ladies had formed working relationships with some of American history’s most visionary women in all professional fields, Mary Regula intended to expand the vision of the library.

During her initial tenure as the NFLL President, Mary Regula also organized the first of what she hoped would be an annual event to continue after she left the organization, a dinner and ceremony honoring the nation’s “First Women,” those who had been the first of their gender to achieve unique benchmarks in their professions.



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