Teaching the First Ladies

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Teaching at a community college has provided me with the opportunity to introduce hundreds of students to the history of American women. One subgroup of women I’ve paid almost no attention to in my teaching, however is that which we call first ladies. I’ve been thinking a lot about our nation’s first ladies lately as a result of news coverage following the recent death of Barbara Bush. First Lady Melania Trump has found herself under near constant microscopic examination by the press since her husband’s election and this scrutiny has only increased this week as she prepares to host her first state dinner.

With the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, I have made a deliberate choice to pay little attention to first ladies in part because I’ve heard from some students that they chose to enroll in women’s history under the (erroneous) assumption that we would talk extensively about first ladies. Prior to taking my course, these students assumed that any focus on women in a history class would be limited to those in high-profile positions. As an historian it is my job to introduce these students to the myriad of ways in which women of all social classes have been historical actors. The press coverage of the Bush memorial service has prompted me to think more broadly about what the stories of these unique women may have to offer to students of women’s history, especially in light of the personal challenges many of these women have faced during their husbands’ time in office.

A quick search for web-based sources on first ladies, however, produced limited academic results. I discovered quickly that while I could secure an image of nearly every first ladies’ inaugural gown online, there does not exist comparable evidence of their political or intellectual pursuits. The National First Ladies Library, for example, provides general biographical information on each US first lady as well as bibliographic sources and lesson plans (disclaimer: I have not tried any of these plans). The site, however, is intended as an introduction to the Canton, Ohio, historical site dedicated to US first ladies and is not equipped for college-level research. The White House Historical Association also offers general biographical information.

A more fruitful search netted a report produced by The George W. Bush Institute in conjunction with The International Center for Research on Women: A Role without a Rulebook: The Influence and Leadership of Global First Ladies by Natalie Gonnella-Platts and Katherine Fritz. This report examines both US and foreign “first ladies” and includes interviews with several.   

So this week I reach out to you, my fellow historians: do you include any discussion of the historical significance of first ladies in your courses? If so, what kinds of sources do you use? Can you recommend any web-based materials to share with students?

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.