I’m fascinated by our First Ladies. It’s such a public position, and yet it’s so undefined. Each woman who has held it has made it her own, finding individual ways to balance the support of her husband and family with her duties as a representative of the United States. Because the job has no formal parameters, she can be as involved (Eleanor Roosevelt), or as remote (Bess Truman), as she wishes to be.
The Research Institute at Sienna College in upstate New York regularly reviews the First Ladies and, with the help of 90 history and poli sci professors from across the United States, ranks them based on their integrity, intelligence, courage, value to country, value to the President, leadership, public image, and “being her own woman.”
Here’s the latest ranking:
1. Eleanor Roosevelt
2. Abigail Adams
3. Dolly Madison
4. Jacqueline Kennedy
5. Hillary Clinton
6. Rosalyn Carter
7. Lady Bird Johnson
8. Betty Ford
9. Edith Roosevelt
10. Sarah Polk
11. Edith Wilson
12. Louisa Adams
13. Martha Washington
Two First Ladies who bounce around in the ratings from decade to decade – Hillary and Jackie – met and liked each other. Interestingly, Jackie’s stock has risen since her death, while Hillary’s dropped after she left the White House for the Senate. Of course, these rankings were established before Hillary’s historic run for President. She may rank higher again these days. (And I wonder what the folks at Sienna would have done with Bill had she had been elected.)
I admire Jackie enormously because she represents what I wish I was, but ain’t: Cool and self-contained, feminine yet strong. That she was only 31 when she became First Lady simply amazes me. How did she come up with that much poise, that much style, and that much sheer intestinal fortitude at such a young age? Internationally, she represented us with grace. Domestically, her goal was to make us proud of our young heritage with projects like state dinners at Mount Vernon and restoring the White House. She could also be very shrewd. To finance the restoration, she initiated the sale of White House souvenir books. Her husband’s advisers warned her that the public would reject this as crass. They were wrong. Decades after the Kennedy-era restoration was paid for, profits from the souvenir books were still saving taxpayers money by defraying the cost of White House maintenance.
I have been learning about Abigail Adams from both the extraordinary HBO miniseries and a book by Phyllis Lee Levine. Wife of one President, mother to another, she was an influence on Jefferson, as well. Forward thinking, literate, patriotic and loving, she is a revelation and inspiration to me. (Since both Mrs. Adamses made the list, I wondered how that other Presidential mother-in-law/daughter-in-law duo rates. Laura Bush is #24 and Barbara Bush came in at #15.)
But two First Ladies that I also feel fondness for because of the extraordinarily tough rows they had to hoe are ranked close to the bottom: Pat Nixon at 33 and Mary Lincoln at 36. Pat Nixon was the epitome of grace under ongoing and unimaginable pressure, even though she was completely blameless in Watergate. Mary Lincoln had in-laws who fought for the Confederacy and, like Jackie, had to bury both a son and a husband before she left the White House. My heart aches for these two, and I think those historians and professors should give them a break.
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