The Political Role of the First Lady in the Twentieth Century

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

30 Pages, Grade: A




1. The ‘Office’ of the First Lady

2. The First Ladies of the Twentieth Century

3. Classifications of First Ladies




The president of the United States is in the center of the American political system. Accordingly, this institution, its development, its position within polity, and its incumbents have been and still are subject of scrutiny in the field of political science. While a myriad of scholars studied the U.S. presidency, the ‘office’[1] of the First Lady has remained widely omitted from consideration until the 1980s. Since then, this general neglect was remedied in that several political scientists began to pay attention to the outstanding role of the presidential spouse which obviously holds an enormous potential of power. Being the person closest to the most powerful man in the United States or rather the world, the First Lady can exert momentous influence on her husband and, therefore, public policy. As the presidency itself, the institution of the First Ladyship has considerably changed during American history. While until the first decade of the twentieth century the presidential wife’s role was largely limited to hostess and ceremonial functions, her scope of responsibilities and duties has tremendously extended since then. However, as the First Lady is neither an elected nor an appointed member of the White House, and the Constitution remains silent about her office, it is largely shaped and defined by its respective occupant. Consequently, the institution of the First Ladyship to be found today does result not only from changing societal and political developments and public expectations, but also to a high degree from the way presidential wives have carried out their office. With the emergence of a more active First Ladyship, presidential spouses were confronted with growing criticism on the part of feminists as well as traditionalists who disapproved their ‘illegitimate exercise’ of power.

Yet it is not clear in how far First Lady can influence American politics and to what degree they actually make use of their power.

This paper tries to examine these questions, focusing on the potential of political influence the office of the First Lady contains. Since the major changes of the First Ladyship took place during the twentieth century, the scope of this paper is limited to this time period.

In the first chapter, an overview of the office of the First Lady including her duties and the related controversies is given. In the second chapter, I will trace the evolution of the institution by discussing the activities and legacies of the eighteen First Ladies who served during the last century. Thereby, the emphasis will be on those presidential wives who shaped the office more profoundly than others. Based upon these insights, I will present different classifications contrived by presidential scholars in the third chapter. Finally, the conclusion will summarize my findings and give prospects for the future of the office.

1. The ‘Office’ of the First Lady

As indicated in the introduction, the role of the First Lady in American history has always been a controversial matter. Undoubtedly, she occupies a highly powerful position since she is the person closest to the president of the United States. However, she is neither an elected nor an appointed and confirmed officer of the government (Patterson 2000). There is no definition to be find that determines what is appropriate or required to do and what is not. Due to this freedom the First Lady has in dealing with her office, she has always been under fire from many sides. It is no wonder then that every single First Lady – and not only those in the last century – was criticized for any more or less significant aspect of the way she fulfilled her role. During all tenures of presidents and their wives, there was a public discourse about what a First Lady had to do and what she was not supposed to do. Most people agree in that she should be a supportive and caring wife and mother and serve as a White House hostess, but as soon as her engagement moves beyond this point, criticism arouse.

Although due to a lack of legal or constitutional guidance it is ‘hard to identify the formal or official roles of the president’s spouse’ (Watson 2000: 71), it is possible to conceptualize a ‘core set of duties assumed by first ladies’ (ibid.). Based upon lists offered by other scholars, Watson makes out eleven fundamental duties of the modern office, including those the public expects first ladies to perform and those commonly undertaken by twentieth century First Ladies.

First of all, the First Lady must fulfil her function as wife and mother. The exercise of these traditional functions under public spotlight means a challenge that many people cannot imagine and do often not take into consideration while evaluating the First Lady. This aspect of First Ladyship also includes the requirement that the First Lady should not overshadow the president or disagree with him in public. The second function to be fulfilled by a First Lady lies in being a public figure and celebrity. The media and ordinary people display a large interest in the best known women in the country; she can even be called a ‘social and cultural trendsetter’ (75). Thirdly, the First Lady serves as the nation’s social hostess. In the capacity of a White House manager, she overlooks social events, including the menu, guest list, entertainment, and seating arrangements. This role is not be underestimated for ‘social events are an important part of the political process, as essential to diplomacy as are the formal diplomatic talks themselves’ (76). Therefore, just in acting as a host, the First Lady can exert influence on the president’s public image and even his agenda. The fourth duty stresses the function as symbol of the American woman. Simultaneously, the president’s wife mirrors the stance of women in the society and affects experiences women in the U.S. make. Accordingly, she is expected to represent both – a modern and a traditional woman. Fifth, the First Lady functions as White House manager and preservationist. She is responsible for the domestic staff and often presides over renovations, restorations, and refurbishments of the Executive Mansion. This obligation requires a high degree of competence and time investment since the White House is at the same time the official residence of the sitting president, a living history museum, the first home of the U.S. public, and a symbol of the nation. Another duty of the First Lady is serving as her husband’s campaigner. Especially with the emergence of mass media such as television, First Ladies are increasingly involved in campaigning which nowadays extends to several months.

Seventh, the First Lady acts as a social advocate and champion of social causes. As will be shown in the following chapter, during the last decades every First Lady promoted her so-called ‘pet project’ such as literacy or drug awareness. For pursuing her concerns, the First Lady has staff and financial resources at her disposal. As many presidential spouses focused on social and humanitarian issues and on endorsement of volunteerism, the First Lady has become the ‘national symbol of the volunteer sector’ (87). Another aspect of the First Ladyship lies in being a symbol of the president and presidency. As presidential spokesperson, the First Lady is expected to appear at public events, thereby representing her husband’s office and the whole country, not only in the U.S. but also abroad.

Functioning as presidential and political party booster, many First Ladies supported their husband and his party by active campaigning, joining the party’s women organization or delivering a speech on the national party convention. To different extents, First Ladies have functioned as diplomats. For the most part, they accompanied their husbands on official state visits abroad and welcomed visiting foreign dignitaries, yet some acted as U.S. ambassador or even acted in behalf of the president. Finally, the First Lady takes, or at least can take, the role of a political and presidential partner. This function implies a high level of influence and importance. The president’s wife has usually been with him through his entire career, is his most trusted adviser, acts privately and publicly, and has a public as well a private relationship with him.

As this list of duties demonstrates, a First Lady has various possibilities to approach her office. Of course, not every presidential wife has fulfilled all functions on the same level or in the same proportion to other duties. Therefore, in the following chapter, I will take a look at the way the First Ladies of the twentieth century carried out their office.

2. The First Ladies of the Twentieth Century

Edith Carow Roosevelt

Being the first presidential wife in the twentieth century, Edith Roosevelt focused on her family and privacy and mainly concentrated on the traditional social functions of the First Lady such as being a hostess. Additionally, she initiated an extensive renovation of the White House, accompanied by the installation of a First Ladies’ Portrait Gallery (Cordery 2001). Yet more important, Edith Roosevelt acted as diplomat by giving her husband Theodore Roosevelt advice concerning the Russo-Japanese War, meeting with ambassadors and decoding sensitive messages (Watson 2000). According to contemporary commentators, she exerted a ‘real but subtle influence over the president’ (Cordery 2001: 206).The only, albeit important, institutional change she made was the hiring of a social secretary to assist her with her schedule and correspondence so that she did not have to rely on the president’s staff any longer (Campbell and McCluskie 2003). Therefore, during Edith Roosevelt’s service as First Lady the development of a professional staff began.

Helen Herron Taft

Helen Taft, who persuaded her husband to run for presidency, is considered to be his most trusted political confidante and to be one of the most politically influential First Ladies. She was active as Howard Taft’s campaigner, speechwriter, and campaigner. Moreover, the First Lady often attended House and Senate debates and discussed them then with her husband (Watson 2000). She was the first First Lady to be present at cabinet meetings (O’Connor, Nye, and van Assendelft 1996). Like many other presidential spouses, she spent much energy on the improvement of the status of women in U.S. society (Watson 2000). In contrast to her predecessor, Helen Taft had a cordial relationship with the press. She was not only the first First Lady to be present at her husband’s inauguration and at the swearing-in of new Supreme Court justices, but did also influence the president directly on at least two appointments. Besides her political endeavors, Helen Taft was a lavish hostess and is best known as the sponsor of the cherry blossom trees along Potomac Drive in Washington D.C. (Cordery 2001).

Ellen Axson Wilson

As her predecessor, Ellen Wilson was her husband’s most trusted advisor. She did not only act as a discussion partner, speechwriter, and editor for the president, but did also take actively part in public policy, even achieving the passage of the Clearance Act of 1914. Thus, she was the first presidential spouse to have her favourite legislation enacted by Congress. In so doing, she had lobbied members of Congress and took them personally to observe the slums in the capital. Yet although the First Lady ‘enjoyed her power to publicize issues, […] she did not want her efforts to conflict with those of the president’ (Sallee 2001: 233).

For Ellen Wilson died in the second year of her husband’s presidency, her record as First Lady is not very comprehensive.

Edith Bolling Wilson

Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith Wilson, devoted most of her interest and time to her husband’s welfare. Although she did not pursue any special causes, her role as First Lady would provoke a great controversy after the president’s health deteriorated seriously in 1919[2]. She decided that he should not resign his office and to leave the public unknowing of his illness. Moreover, she acted as ‘communication link’ to foreign governments after his stroke (Hastedt 2003: 192). Nonetheless, claiming that she did not make a single decision on her own, Edith Wilson emphasized that she just selected the matters being presented to her husband. Yet there is evidence that the First Lady prevented certain materials and visitors from the president, but is not clear how broad her scope of authority really was. Whatever the answer to this question is, ‘the institutional legacy that Edith Wilson left for future First Ladies was the historical conviction in unofficial Washington that she had overreached the proper limits of the role of a presidential wife’ (Gould 2001b: 243).


[1] Although the First Ladyship is strictly speaking no office, at least no formal one, for the sake of simplicity and legibility, in the remainder of this paper it is referred to as ‘office’.

[2] Yet also before her husband’s illness, Edith gave him political advice as a member of ‘The Inquiry’, his inner circle of policy makers, and was informed about details concerning public policy and the war (Watson 2000).

Excerpt out of 30 pages


The Political Role of the First Lady in the Twentieth Century
Johns Hopkins University
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ISBN (eBook)
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double spaced.
Political, Role, First, Lady, Twentieth, Century
Quote paper
Kirsten Kuptz (Author), 2004, The Political Role of the First Lady in the Twentieth Century, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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