Explore America’s First Ladies

Women’s History Month, celebrated in March, is an opportune time to remember and celebrate the spouses of the US Presidents, in other words, America’s First Ladies.

Curiosity about the First Ladies and analysis of their performance is an ongoing aspect of American life. The role of First Lady comes with no job description, no pay, and no written requirements. Yet America’s presidential spouses have wielded great influence and have always been subject to intense public scrutiny.

In a fascinating illustrated lecture that was offered via Zoom on the evening of March 14th at 7pm, historian Leslie Goddard, Ph.D., explored which First Ladies have rated highest and lowest with historians. She used the Siena College Research Institute’s 2014 First Ladies Study as a jumping-off point to explore how different first ladies have been assessed and why.

She looked at some first ladies who excelled at public duties and were acclaimed as symbols of strength in times of crisis (Eleanor Roosevelt) and others who closely guarded their private lives (Mamie Eisenhower). Some excelled at the social and public aspects of the job (Dolley Madison) while others shunned public attention (Bess Truman). Some were showered with adoration and respect (Jackie Kennedy, Frances Cleveland). Some lived through immense personal tragedy (Mary Lincoln, Jane Pierce).

 Each in her own way both reflected and influenced the attitudes of society about appropriate behavior for women.  If you are curious to learn more about these fascinating women, here are some biographies and histories that offer insightful portraits of these women and their lives, and examine their contributions to the presidencies they supported, all available with your Livingston Library card.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America, she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private. A deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations.

Betty Ford : First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer by Lisa McCubbin

An intimate and insightful biography of Betty Ford, the groundbreaking, candid, and resilient First Lady and wife of President Gerald Ford.  This is an inspiring story of an ordinary Midwestern girl thrust onto the world stage and into the White House under extraordinary circumstances. Setting a precedent as First Lady, Betty Ford refused to be silenced by her critics as she publicly championed equal rights for women, and spoke out about issues that had previously been taboo–breast cancer, depression, abortion, and sexuality.

Eleanor In The Village : Eleanor Roosevelt’s Search For Freedom And Identity in New York’s Greenwich Village by Jan Jarboe Russell

 A vivid account of a critical chapter in the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, when she moved to New York’s Greenwich Village, shed her high-born conformity, and became the progressive leader who pushed for change as America’s First Lady.  Russell pulls back the curtain on Eleanor’s life to reveal the motivations and desires that drew her to the Village-a world away from the Victorian propriety, debutante balls, and New York society gatherings in which she grew up-and how her time there transformed her sense of self and influenced her political outlook for the rest of her life

First Ladies And American Women : In Politics And At Home by Jill Abraham Hummer

This book is a history of first ladies beginning with Lou Henry Hoover and ending with Michelle Obama, discussing how they defined their role with a focus on how they related to women’s issues and how they participated in politics. Hummer explores the intersection of personality and the first ladies’ personal ambition and relationship with their presidential spouse, with the social and political context of the time as these women found their place in politics and the presidency.

First Ladies Of The Republic : Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, And The Creation Of An Iconic American Role by Jeanne E. Abrams

America’s first First Ladies–Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison–had the challenging task of playing a pivotal role in defining the nature of the American presidency to a fledgling nation and to the world. Abrams breaks new ground by examining their lives as a group. From their visions for the future of the burgeoning new nation and its political structure, to ideas about family life and matrimony, these three women had a profound influence on one another’s views as they created the new role of presidential spouse.

First Women : The Grace And Power Of America’s Modern First Ladies by Kate Andersen Brewer

Presents an intimate examination of the true influences of White House First Ladies from Jackie Kennedy to Michelle Obama that draws on previous untapped and candid sources to document their stories.

Grace & Steel : Dorothy, Barbara, Laura, And The Women Of the Bush Dynasty by  J. Randy Taraborrelli

Taraborrelli reveals the unsung heroines of the inimitable Bush family dynasty: not only First Ladies Barbara and Laura, but other colorful women whose stories have been left out of history for far too long, including Barbara’s mother-in-law, the formidable Dorothy Bush; the enigmatic Columba and the controversial Sharon; and Laura’s twins, Jenna and Barbara. 

Lady Bird Johnson : Hiding In Plain Sight by Julia Sweig

Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson is perhaps the most underestimated First Lady in U.S. history. Lady Bird entered the White House in the shadow of JFK’s horrific assassination and saw America through the tumult of an increasing presence in Vietnam and the civil rights movement. She used her time in the White House to shape the role of First Lady into what we know today. Efficiently running her position as an office, she set out to advance women from all walks of life and advocate for the environment.

Lady First : The World Of First Lady Sarah Polk by Amy S. Greenberg

The little-known story of remarkable First Lady Sarah Polk–a brilliant master of the art of high politics and a crucial but unrecognized figure in the history of American feminism.

Louisa : The Extraordinary Life Of Mrs Adams by Louisa Thomas

An intimate portrait of Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, who witnessed firsthand the greatest transformations of her time.

The Matriarch: Barbara Bush And The Making Of An American Dynasty by Susan Page

Page’s coverage of the life of former first lady Barbara Bush (1925-2018)includes key moments, such as her marriage to George Bush, the death of her daughter Robin, her struggles with depression, the development of her own political consciousness, and her contentious relationship with Nancy Reagan.

The Triumph of Nancy Reagan by Karen Tumulty

The definitive biography of the fiercely vigilant and politically astute First Lady who shaped one of the most consequential presidencies of the 20th century: Nancy Reagan.

Where The Light Enters : Building A Family, Discovering Myself by Jill Biden

Current first lady and  former second lady talks about her family, relationships, and career as an educator. In this often poignant retelling, Biden shares some of the more meaningful moments of her life. Through this personal disclosure, readers gain insight into the fortitude and courage it takes to be a woman with a career and a close-knit family, with the obligations that come with a life as the second lady (at the time).

Women Of The White House : The Illustrated Story Of The First Ladies Of The United States of America by Amy Russo

Looks at the work, lives and times of the 48 women officially recognized as FLOTUS, including the newest first lady Jill Biden. Through portraits, photographs and profiles, the book examines their contributions to the presidencies they supported and the 230-year history of the role.

-Archana, Adult Services & Acquisitions Librarian

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