Creating the “First Lady”

Creating the “First Lady”: Presidents’ Wives in Popular Magazines, 1880-1930

By Donna L. Halper (Assoc. Professor of Communication, Lesley University, Cambridge MA)


In our modern world, we are accustomed to reporters covering the First Lady: whether Michelle Obama or Laura Bush or Hillary Clinton, the media often discuss where the First Lady is going and what she is doing there. It is still customary to pay close attention to what she is wearing, and tradition still demands that she confine herself to charitable work, even if she previously had a career. But since Eleanor Roosevelt, credited by many historians with redefining the role of the First Lady and making it more of a public position (see for example Emma Bugbee’s essay, there have been certain First Ladies who spoke about political topics, and they were perceived as controversial because of it. It is interesting to note that many of the customs and conventions used by reporters who write about today’s First Ladies can be traced back more than a century, to the era of newspaper society pages and feature-oriented magazines. While some mention of presidential wives can be found as far back as the late 1700s, it is in the period beginning in the mid-to late 1800s that essays about historical figures, including First Ladies, became more readily available to a wider audience. Prior to this time, historical essays were most frequently found in academic journals; but as a number of mass-appeal publications were introduced in the late 1800s, readers gained access to feature-length articles about historical topics—including articles about First Ladies. Using examples derived from the databases, and focusing mainly on the content found in such magazines as Munsey’s (including Marian West’s 1901 essay, “Our Four Year Queens”; Scribner’s (including J.G. de Roulhac’s 1930 essay, “Abigail Adams: A Joy Forever”; McClure’s (including Ida M. Tarbell’s 1896 essay, “Abraham Lincoln”; The Century (includingHenry Loomis Nelson’s 1902 essay, “The Capital of our Democracy.” May 1902.; Literary Digest (including a 1924 essay, “Personal Glimpses: Some ‘Boudoir Mirrors of Washington’”; and The Bookman, (including Catherine Frances Cavanagh’s 1911 essay, “Stories of Our Government Bureaus”, I hope to elaborate on how the magazines of that era helped to shape the public perception of the ideal First Lady, and how it reinforced the qualities that even a modern First Lady is expected to possess.



In his 1919 essay “Heroines of Yesterday: Wives and Mothers of the American Revolution,” Carl Holliday raised an interesting question. “We all have read what George Washington and John Adams and other founders of this nation thought of patriotism and sacrifice in righteous war; but what were the opinions of Martha Washington and Abigail Adams and other wives and mothers who suffered in that period of trial?” (237) It was a question rarely asked, and in his piece, he tried to address it. But Holliday was one of the few who did: most history books and most scholarly articles focused almost exclusively on the Founding Fathers. Their wives were sometimes mentioned, but the prevailing assumption was that they were merely the help-mates, content to be mistresses of the domestic sphere. For example, Gaillard Hunt, writing about Martha Washington in The Bookman in 1908, asserted that “the modern woman of advanced ideas” might not approve of her because she “never made a bright or witty remark, and hardly ever read a book except her Bible.” According to Hunt, “Lady Washington,” as she was called by her contemporaries, totally embraced her role as the ruler of the domestic sphere and never wanted more than to fully and totally support the president: “She held…the same views as her husband, and held them because he held them. She thought he was the greatest man in the world… She lost no sleep studying the problems that were vexing philosophers and statesmen, but went comfortably to bed at night, thinking of the last invoice of clothes arrived from England, or what she would have for dinner on the following day.” She was widely admired as the Mistress of the White House, and so beloved was she by the public that “they treated her as if she were a duchess” (189).

Interestingly, nearly eighty years before Carl Holliday’s piece in Munsey’s Magazine, a similar piece about the importance of the wives of the Founders appeared in the pages of the North American Review: it was written by Charles Francis Adams, the grandson of Abigail Adams. Writing the introduction to a book of Abigail’s letters, written between 1761 and 1814, he remarked that “The heroism of the females of the Revolution has gone from memory with the generation that witnessed it, and nothing, absolutely nothing, remains upon the ear of the young of the present day, but the faint echo of an expiring general tradition” (366). Adams believed his grandmother should be remembered as far more than a president’s wife, although in a culture where women’s status was determined by marrying well, being Mrs. John Adams was certainly a major part of her identity. Still, Charles Francis Adams pointed out that his grandmother was a woman with a wide range of ideas and emotions; by reading her correspondence, he hoped that people would come to know her better, since these letters “furnish an exact transcript of the feelings of the writer, in times of no ordinary trial” (366).

While in our modern world, the women we know as “First Ladies” are frequently dissected and analyzed (some critics might say over-analyzed) by the popular press, it was not the custom of newspapers prior to the mid-1800s to pay close attention to a president’s wife. In that era before most newspapers had a “women’s page,” we find occasional articles about presidential spouses, and these stories are usually interspersed with the general news: an interesting example, and perhaps one of the earliest examples of the use of the term “first lady,” can be found on page four of the Boston Courier, 12 June 1843, where an article about Martha Washington called her “the first lady of the nation” (4). By the mid-1800s, when newspapers developed their women’s page (which often included a society page, covering the activities of upper-class women from aristocratic families), stories about the activities of a president’s wife were usually placed on that page, although sometimes, in the course of a political story, both the president and his wife were discussed. But for the most part, “the life of a President’s wife [was] more or less restricted to affairs within the White House and to public appearances of considerable pomp and ceremony” (Bugbee 22). Thus, if you were not fortunate enough to be invited to a White House event (and few average citizens received such an invitation), you had little opportunity to learn what the President’s wife was doing, and you relied on the occasional newspaper article to find out.

By the late 1800s, however, the rise of mass-appeal magazines such as Scribner’s (1887), Collier’s (1888), Munsey’s (1889), Literary Digest (1890) and McClure’s (1893), provided expanded coverage, including in-depth features (often with illustrations) about famous or important people. These new magazines also provided readers with an affordable way to stay informed; Munsey’s was intentionally marketed as a low-priced magazine, selling for only ten cents a copy. Its founder, Frank Munsey credited that decision with a steady rise in magazine sales (Munsey, 680); but even his competitors were not that much more expensive—for example, McClure’s sold for fifteen cents. And while these new feature magazines published articles on a variety of topics, from literature to humor to current events, profiles of interesting people (especially those who had a unique life story) were always popular with readers. However, there were only a few times when these magazines focused exclusively on America’s First Ladies. Perhaps the best example was an article from the September 1901 issue of Munsey’s Magazine, “Our Four Year Queens,” in which author Marian West discussed every presidential wife “from Mrs. Washington to Mrs. McKinley,” and gave readers a behind-the-scenes look at the pluses and minuses of being a presidential spouse. (West, 888-896). It was one of the few times that such an in-depth profile was presented, and undoubtedly, many readers found it fascinating; it was also quite honest, stressing that for all of the excitement and honor of living in the White House, it could also be exhausting, with expectations that were often difficult to meet. Still, she noted that nearly every First Lady had managed to fulfill her duties in a dignified manner and bring credit to both her husband and her country.

It is not surprising that the wives of the presidents never received as much attention as the presidents themselves; as mentioned previously, the public activities of a presidential wife were limited. Throughout the 1800s and even into the early 1900s, it was still not customary to interview any of the First Ladies (and Marian West did not). The reason for this was that since women were not a force in politics (they still did not have the right to vote), there was little incentive for news reporters to talk to them; it was left to the society page reporters to describe the formal receptions at the White House, usually focusing on what everyone wore. Further, presidential wives were not expected to express opinions about matters of policy (this would later become one of the many controversies surrounding First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt). But even though the wives of the presidents rarely spoke to reporters, this did not stop some of the magazine writers from expressing opinions. For example, in an era when gender roles were much more rigid than they are today, any deviation, however minor, from the way a First Lady had always acted was noted by a critical press. This even applied to how a First Lady was supposed to look: Grover Cleveland’s sister Rose (who acted as First Lady until the president married in 1886) caused a stir in the newspapers in 1885 when she got her hair “bobbed” (the custom at that time was still for women to have long hair, and society columnists worried that soon, women would begin to emulate Miss Cleveland). Rose also had the misfortune of being well-educated and somewhat of an intellectual, with a background in the classics and literature, at a time when this too was not expected of a woman, let alone a woman serving as the First Lady. In an essay about President Cleveland in The Bookman in 1905, Harry Thurston Peck wrote of her in a scornful tone, first remarking on her age (39, what would then have been considered a ‘spinster’ or ‘old maid’) and noting that she was very educated and had been both a teacher and a public lecturer; “She wore her hair cropped like a man’s, and had a touch of masculine decision of manner” (525). Rose Cleveland, by all accounts, performed her duties as Hostess in Chief very effectively, but this was not where her heart was. She loved to write, and had published a successful book of literary criticism, which sold well—but this did not earn her much respect from her male peers, one of whom wrote that she was “far from being a deep and subtle thinker” (qtd. in Peck 526). But Rose did have a few supporters: in a 1913 piece for Munsey’s Magazine, F. Lauriston Bullard referred to her as someone who had inherited a “trying situation” – leaving her chosen profession to help her brother in the White House. For Bullard, Rose was to be admired: she “was called upon to perform the duties, though she was denied the privileges, of a president’s wife,” and he asserted that those who knew her in the White House were pleased with what she had done there (929). On the other hand, when President Cleveland finally found a wife, authors like Harry Thurston Peck made no secret of their preference. Peck found Frances Folsom, whom president married in 1886, a far more suitable choice for First Lady than Rose had been. Interestingly, Frances too was a college graduate, something that was still rare for most women and even more unusual for First Ladies — at that point, only she and Lucy (Mrs. Rutherford B.) Hayes had gone to college. Society’s attitude about women attending college was changing, but not quickly enough: in 1894, The Outlook Magazine, on the same page where the editors praised the achievements of the college Mrs. Cleveland had attended, also published an article called “Self Expression of College Women,” noting that women who attended college were still being criticized for doing so, and most female graduates were frustrated at the lack of opportunities their education brought them (626). But for the popular press, the fact that she went to college (or what she might have studied) was secondary. More important to writers like Harry Thurston Peck was that she was young (only twenty-two), as well as “tall and graceful… with manners that were… dignified and winning. Her cordiality was sincere and yet always tactful” (538).

Well into the 1920s, often said to be an era of increasing freedom for women, the articles about present and future First Ladies presupposed that they would not work outside the home nor have any career other than raising their children and being in charge of the social life in the White House. And the press still insisted that being the wife of a president was “the most honored position a woman may hold in America” (“First Ladies” 36). Even when the magazines began to publish more in-depth profiles of First Ladies, for the most part, traditional gender roles were not questioned. The previously cited 1925 article, “First Ladies of the Land, Past and Present” in Literary Digest, praised Grace Coolidge, the current First Lady, for her educational achievements (by the 1920s, more middle and upper-class women were attending college, so it was no longer considered something unusual); and the author spoke favorably about Mrs. Coolidge’s experience as a teacher of the deaf. But it was never suggested that she might aspire to continue working; in fact, the speculation was about what kind of parties she would give and how she would dress for them (“First Ladies” 36-37). Although gradually, the conversation about the role of the First Lady expanded, the traditional view of what a First Lady ought to be had remarkable staying power. The only thing that seemed to change, as Emily Newell Blair wrote in 1927 in an article for The Forum, was that now, the wife of the president was considered a public person, as well as a political person: in other words, where before, she remained in the domestic sphere and only appeared at White House or charitable functions, now the First Lady was scrutinized by the press far more than at any time in history, even if she still did not usually make political pronouncements. Blair, an expert on politics as well as a founder of the League of Women Voters, compared her own time (the 1920s) with the 1890s, looking at how the press treated Mrs. Frances Cleveland, a woman who was generally described by reporters as “beautiful, sweet, kindly, and charming.” Despite being educated and personable, the only coverage she received was in articles about her wedding, what she wore to formal events, or which receptions she hosted. She was expected to stay out of the limelight, and that is what she did (although sometimes she was still the subject of Washington society gossip, as some other First Ladies had been) (581). But these days, Blair wrote, the First Lady’s separate sphere would be far more difficult to maintain. Blair believed this was partly a result of women getting the vote: if women did not like a male candidate’s wife, it could affect whether or not they voted for him; thus, president’s wives were now part of politics, whether they wanted to be or not (583). But while she did not mention this as a possibility, something else had changed: Emily Newell Blair was living in the first era to have an expanded press: there was now live campaigning by radio, and coverage of the candidates offered the public instant access for the first time. As with our internet age and our 24/7 cable news channels constantly requiring something to fill the time, a case could be made that the newfound interest in the candidates, which included their wives, was a result of more media coverage from radio, causing a growing demand from the public for even more information. (The effect that radio was having on the public’s expectation of political information was noticed by contemporaries of Mrs. Blair: two examples are “Democracy Goes on the Air,” by Katharine Ludington, The Survey, 15 June 1928, pp. 331-332; and “Radio ‘Debunking’ the Campaigns,” Literary Digest, 1 December 1928, p. 13.)

When we look back at the early years of newspaper and magazine reporting on presidential wives, the topics are not very different from what we see today: the stories focused on the First Lady’s daily activities and tried to provide information for curious readers, most of whom could only imagine what it was like to be married to a president. While the stories generally included no quotes from the First Lady herself, they did examine everything from what books she was reading to her children, and what items she was knitting or crocheting; to how she prepared for elegant events, and which dignitaries came to the White House receptions and dinners. And of course, there was fascination with what fashions the guests (especially the female guests) were wearing or how the first lady herself was dressed. By the 1890s, the magazines also took readers into her home, both her childhood residence and the White House. The emphasis was on how she decorated, and what changes or improvements she made. Two good examples of this genre are Catherine F. Cavanagh’s 1899 essay for Munsey’s Magazine, “Historic Homes of Washington,” and Charles Moore’s 1903 essay for The Century Magazine, “The Restoration of the White House.”

But because customs and conventions about political reporting were still being developed, there was no agreement in the press as to what to call the president’s wife. There are numerous myths about the origin of the term “First Lady,” but it does not seem to have come into common use till the late 1870s. Some sources have claimed that Dolly Madison was called a “First Lady”, but there is no printed evidence from her day to support that claim. More common are magazines that began applying it to her retroactively: for example, Catherine Cavanagh’s 1911 piece in The Bookman (284). But the previously mentioned 1843 reference to Martha Washington as “first lady of the nation” seems to be the exception rather than the rule; what is true, however, is that Mrs. Washington was generally referred to in the press as “Lady Washington.” The reason for an American woman to carry a title usually associated with British royalty was explained by Gaillard Hunt: “The title [of Lady] had been spontaneously bestowed upon her by the people of Philadelphia when she visited that town… after her husband had been made Commander in Chief, and it adhered to her ever afterward.” Hunt noted that as incongruous as such a title sounds to modern ears, back then, Americans had “no experience in social life except as subjects of a monarch; so when they wished to honor the wife of their first citizen, the way that naturally occurred to them was to give her a title of nobility” (Hunt 189). His assertion is based on fact: as far back as 1775, a short article from a Baltimore newspaper referred to the “Ladies Consorts of his Excellency General Washington, and Major Gates of Virginia…” and said that “Lady Washington was waited upon and attended by Parties of the Independent and Light Infantry Companies” ( Maryland Journal, 22 November 1775, p. 3). The use of “Lady Washington” in the popular press also got a big boost in 1876, during America’s Centennial: across the country, women were planning tea parties in honor of this auspicious event, and some also planned a celebratory meal in the style of 100 years ago. It was called a “Lady Washington Supper,” and magazines provided instructions and recipes (see for example “Centennial Cookery,” The Century Magazine, April 1876, pp. 892-895).

If you were reading the newspapers and popular magazines of the early-to-mid 1800s, you would have noticed a number of terms for the president’s wife: Martha Washington may indeed have been the only spouse given the title “Lady,” but the word itself seemed to be a common expression for a wife—newspapers and magazines frequently referred to “the president and Lady” or “the president and his Lady.” In fact, Ida M. Tarbell, writing about the death of Abraham Lincoln for McClure’s Magazine, found that this construction was still used in the press during the 1860s (378); it could occasionally be seen as late as 1900, although it had faded in popularity by then. Another common expression for the president’s wife (also used for a woman fulfilling the duties of the First Lady, if the president was unmarried or a widower) linked her to the place where most of her duties were performed: “Mistress of the White House.” It could be found in newspapers as early as the 1840s, a time when the word “mistress” did not have the meaning it has today. Marian West, in her 1901 article for Munsey’s Magazine, observed that Abigail Adams was the first presidential wife about whom this title could accurately be applied, since the White House had just been completed and the seat of the government moved there in 1800 (889). In the case of a president whose wife had died, or who, like James Buchanan, had never married, it referred to the female relative chosen to fulfill the duties of chief hostess, the woman in charge of arranging and organizing formal receptions and official dinners: as Catherine F. Cavanagh wrote in her 1899 piece about “Historical Washington Homes,” Harriet Lane Johnston, the niece of President Buchanan, was chosen to be Mistress of the White House, and to provide an official welcome when heads of state and other dignitaries came to call: “It was she who entertained the Prince of Wales in 1860” (824).

Another idiomatic expression for the president’s wife in the late 1800s and early 1900s was “First Lady of the Land,” which was still far more common than the shortened version, “First Lady.” (Sometimes, a variation, “First Lady in the Land” could be seen, and there was also one other expression—“First Lady of the Republic,” but neither one of these was as popular in magazines as “First Lady of the Land.”) Meant, perhaps, to connote how wide her influence was, newspapers sometimes used this term to evoke thoughts of a queen on her throne, as in the New York Times story on the death of Mrs. Lucy Hayes, beloved wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes: the Times discussed “her influence during the four years that she reigned as first lady of the land” (“The Death of Mrs. Hayes, New York Times, 26 June 1889, p. 5). While some magazines also employed it with a sense of the regal, others used it to show that in America, no-one was born famous, and even a First Lady could come from humble origins: as Marian West put it, “Any American girl may be a four years’ queen” (888). In early 1900, women gaining fame thanks to their own career success was still relatively rare, so being the wife of the president was presented as an ideal worth hoping for. That was how a May 1902 piece in Munsey’s Magazine called “In the Public Eye” used the expression “First Lady of the Land”— while discussing Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt, second wife of President Theodore Roosevelt, the author stressed their loving relationship, rather than the influence she might have as her husband’s chief confidant. “Mrs. Roosevelt is more the keeper of her husband’s heart than the first lady of the land” (183).

But while it was probably useful for journalists to have one agreed-upon way to reference the wife of the president, the term “First Lady of the Land” began to be used so often that it became a cliché. In November 1922, literary critic William Lyon Phelps, who wrote for Scribner’s Magazine, had established the “Ignoble Prize,” which he would award to a work of literature he felt was very over-rated. By 1929, he was also asking readers to nominate redundant phrases and over-used expressions, leading to a debate about “mistress of the White House” and “First Lady of the Land.” One letter-writer, Mrs. Elizabeth Nichols Case, of Hartford, Connecticut, suggested “the … detestable phrase—”the First Lady of the Land.” I don’t know precisely when this phrase was born, but it seems to be firmly settled in our common speech, and in the newspapers. I think it is horrible.” And she said she much preferred “Mistress of the White House” (qtd. in Phelps, July 1929, 98). But several months later, another reader disagreed. Miss Blanche Wappat, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania spoke in favor of First Lady of the Land, saying, “Let’s keep it. We have all too little left from America’s Age of Innocence. ‘First lady of the land’—Can’t we see all the pageant of hoop skirts, bustles, ‘waterfalls,’ dignified bewhiskered presidents, leg-o-mutton sleeves, magnificent receptions in gas-lighted rooms —all the pageant of the sentimental seventies, the self-conscious eighties, the mauve nineties? Why should we discard a title that makes us remember all those dear decades when a lady was a lady and an uncovered ankle was anathema? Of course it’s sentimental. But it has quiet dignity and truth also. Let’s keep it, for a while anyway. Maybe a better tide will be found by the new generation of newspaper men! ‘Mistress of the White House’ suggested by your Connecticut correspondent, sounds vaguely scandalous” (qtd. in Phelps, October 1929, 448).

Lest this all seem like a lesson in semantics, the question of what to call the president’s wife was part of a larger issue: what did it mean to be a First Lady? What were her duties and what was expected of her? Back in Martha Washington’s time, the country was new, there was no White House yet, and the Revolutionary War had only recently concluded. Suddenly, America was an independent nation, with its own head of state. And it was up to the president’s wife to set the standard for how entertainment should be conducted and how the new president would welcome distinguished guests. By all accounts, Martha Washington did her job well: she an impressive “Hostess in Chief,” courteous yet stately; when the feature magazines took up the subject of the presidential wives, Marian West called her a “true lady of quality” whose influence on manners and etiquette was “sorely needed in those early days of social incoherence” (889). Martha Washington was also an efficient “lady of the house,” supervising the servants, determining the hours when guests could visit, planning the dinners, making sure supplies were ordered, making sure everything ran smoothly, while still making time to raise her children and be her husband’s closest companion. And in the pages of the magazine articles about her, readers could marvel at how tireless she was, and how she managed to do so much. Carl Holliday, writing for Munsey’s Magazine in 1919 at the end of the Great War, saw in Lady Washington a source of inspiration for all women. He praised her patriotic support of the war effort: although she was a woman with wealth and prestige, she willingly put the needs of the country ahead of her own, and encouraged all women, no matter what their social class, to do the same. If the term “role model” had existed back then, surely she was a fine example, sewing and mending for hours at a time. One of her letters noted that she and her “negro servants… kept sixteen spinning wheels in constant operation” during the war. She refused to import clothing from England and insisted that part of declaring our independence was to begin making our own goods here. In fact, visitors to her home were surprised that she did so much sewing herself, rather than having servants do it. Holliday quoted her as saying “We must become independent by our determination to do without what we cannot make ourselves” (237).

He was similarly effusive in his praise of Abigail Adams, a woman he compared favorable with the mothers of Sparta in ancient Greece. He spoke of her “quiet fortitude” even amidst the chaos of war, and how she too willingly embraced self-sacrifice for the sake of the nation, and encouraged her husband as he made the most difficult decisions. That Abigail was adored by her John Adams was beyond question: Holliday quotes from a letter John sent her, in which he spoke of his beloved wife as if she were a saint, using such adjectives as “pure,” “benevolent,” “virtuous” and “pious” (238). In fact, Charles Francis Adams need not have worried about his grandmother being forgotten: in a number of magazine articles of the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were historical articles that sang her praises, most notably a January 1930 tribute in Scribner’s Magazine: “Abigail Adams: A Joy Forever,” by J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton, a professor from North Carolina. He began his essay by saying that Abigail was “one of the most remarkable women of the early days of this country.” He went on, “Of all the women who have been the “First Lady of the Land,” the most interesting in her life and the most stimulating in her personality was the first mistress of the White House. Martha Washington was more regally impressive; Dolly Madison had better looks and more social graces of the generally accepted type; others, perhaps, have been more blessed in certain particulars; but none can rival, in her combination of striking qualities, Abigail Adams” (64). Hamilton also observed that while Abigail was not what we today would call a feminist, she certainly wanted to see women have more opportunities, especially for education (she herself was given little formal education, but was bright and inquisitive and able to learn on her own): “Always she had lamented “the trifling, narrow, contracted education” of women, and hoped to see it improved. In 1776 she wrote [her husband] that in the new code of laws she desired he “would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors were”” (68) Unfortunately, John Adams’ reply did not take her concerns seriously, but it was certainly remarkable that she expressed them at a time when this would have been considered unusual. It is also remarkable that this is one First Lady who, as Charles Francis Adams pointed out, left us a written record of her opinions and emotions– one that she never expected to see published (Adams 366), so her frankness is especially noteworthy.

Speaking of Dolly Madison, John Williamson Palmer, writing in The Century Magazine in April 1897 praised her skills as a hostess; she was a Mistress of the White House who was the “idol of the common people” for her ability to make everyone, both high and low alike, feel equally important and welcome: “Dolly Madison was ‘at home’ to kings, presidents, and the people, without distinction of persons…” She occupied her “social throne” admirably, always manifesting warmth and grace (814). “Mistress Dolly,” as she was often called, was also referred to as a prominent figure in Washington DC society, and above all, someone who loved good food and wanted her guests to eat and be satisfied: some elites evidently felt she was too generous, and criticized her for it, but she did not seem to mind. Catherine Frances Cavanagh tells the story of one of her lasting contributions: it was she who introduced ice cream to the White House dessert menu (“Stories” 524).

Many of the popular magazines of the late 1890s and early 1900s seemed to have a fascination (or even some nostalgia) for the early days of the country, a time they associated with courtliness and good manners, when the First Lady was like a queen in her own realm. But while Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolly Madison were favorites, there were also articles about other First Ladies, not all of whom were regarded as so positively. Mary Todd Lincoln was the First Lady some of the writers loved to hate: in fact, in an otherwise positive article about the history of the First Ladies, Marion West was dismissive of Mrs. Lincoln, “of whom the less said, perhaps, the better.” According to West, Mrs. Lincoln was a cross her husband had to bear, and Washington society rejected her due to her “rage and insolence” (894). But other authors had a more nuanced or somewhat sympathetic view of Mrs. Lincoln: among them was Ida M. Tarbell, soon to be known for her work as a “muckraker,” but in the late 1890s, writing an extended series about the life of Abraham Lincoln for McClure’s Magazine in which she refuted some of the most common myths about his wife, while still being honest about Mrs. Lincoln’s temperamental personality; she also noted the fact that while Mary Todd Lincoln always believed in her husband, the couple seemed to have very few things in common (436-437). And in Willis Steell’s 1909 piece for Munsey’s Magazine, he presented Mrs. Lincoln as somewhat of a victim of a clannish and judgmental social hierarchy, comprised largely of aristocratic southern women who refused to welcome her. In his depiction, she was a woman desperate for approval and eager to be accepted by Washington society, but “…few people really liked her,” and the women of Washington perceived her as “gauche” and lacking in social graces. She was also perceived as having a volatile temperament and being awkward when greeting people at social functions (618). Catherine Frances Cavanagh’s 1911 article in The Bookman observed that Mrs. Lincoln was in a no-win situation: it seemed that whatever she tried to do, even with the best intentions, people would criticize her. For example, she objected to what she felt was excessive ostentatiousness in Washington: she especially thought state dinners were too extravagant and inappropriate during a time of war; but her political enemies accused her of being “parsimonious,” lacking the good nature and generosity they believed previous First Ladies had demonstrated (529).

It is interesting to note that articles in newspapers and magazines had begun to share Mrs. Lincoln’s concern about Washington society (and upper-class society in general), and it was not just the clergy who complained that too many people were more worried about status and power than about kindness and compassion. But it was mainly the women, the “congressional ladies,” wives of senators and representatives, who were accused of these negative qualities. Writing with a trace of sarcasm as he observed the social scene in Washington, Henry Loomis Nelson in The Century Magazine in 1902, remarked that some of these ladies who were now in Washington thanks to their husband’s position, no longer thought that “simplicity is a virtue” and were determined to move up in social circles by dressing elegantly– but always in the right styles, lest they be accused of bad taste. Loomis did seem aware that the sphere of politics was still closed to women, thereby limiting what they could achieve; but he believed Washington was remarkably democratic, such that it offered even women who had never learned the fine arts nor went to finishing school an amazing opportunity for social advancement: “She may go to Washington with the hearty and frank outspokenness of the church fair, and quit it with the purr of the dinner party” (37). But while this opportunity to learn the social graces and move up in Washington society might be enticing, it could also lead to the kind of haughty and judgmental behavior that excluded and denigrated those deemed unworthy. Writing in 1903 for The Smart Set Magazine, Walden Fawcett concluded that the wives of Washington’s political leaders were creating a very real problem, and even the First Lady had to take a share of the blame. “T]here have arisen in Washington a number of cliques—offensive and defensive alliances of varying power. The influence of the Mistress of the White House is essentially a potent factor in the formation of these small, select circles, unless the First Lady of the Land exercise exceptional care not to allow her personal preferences to dictate her official policies” (77). It might have been informative to ask the First Lady (Mrs. Edith Roosevelt at that time) her reaction to such criticism, but again, reporters rarely solicited the opinion of a president’s wife, even when writing about what they thought she ought to do. First Ladies could be spoken about, but rarely were they given the opportunity to speak for themselves.

In addition to articles which reinforced the view that the women of contemporary Washington were cliquish and materialistic, there were also several books which purported to give readers the inside scoop on Washington gossip, and which focused exclusively on the negative traits of the most powerful women (even if their power was vicarious, derived mainly from the men to whom they were married). Since most of the feature magazines did book reviews, the gossip they contained received some attention it might not have deserved. In fairness to the book reviewers, it was a long-held belief in the popular culture that women liked to gossip, and that they tended to be more deceitful and manipulative than men were. Such views had been found in songs, poems and plays for centuries, but now they were also being expressed in popular magazines, such as in a two-part series by Karin Michaelis “Why Are Women Less Truthful Than Men?” which appeared in Munsey’s Magazine in May and June 1913. And when an anonymously-written book called “Boudoir Mirrors of Washington,” was published in 1924, The Literary Digest took notice of it. The reviewer remarked that “[I]f ‘Washington society is the crest of our social wave,’ every little wavelet has a gossipful subject of its own, and nowhere else in the world, we are assured, is there so much social chatter. All this belongs, of course, chiefly to the feminine side of life at the Capital, and the feminine side… is more powerful in the conduct in the country than the average citizen might imagine. A good deal of the gossip of Washington, it is admitted, is plain tittle-tattle, but a good part of it also reveals interesting personalities, political tendencies, women of past, present, and future potentialities.” (40)

The articles about ostentation and jealousy stood in marked contrast to the almost worshipful articles about the “good old days,” which stressed the positive attributes displayed by the great Founding Mothers, who were usually portrayed as exemplars of a tradition of self-sacrifice, industriousness, warmth, good manners, and hospitality; and while some of the early First Ladies understood how to arrange an elegant dinner party, the women themselves were not depicted as ostentatious. Perhaps some women around them may have been jealous or unpleasant, but women like Martha Washington or Dolly Madison were able to remain above such petty intrigues (West 890). In fact, the popular magazines promoted the view that the ideal First Lady was always down-to-earth, someone who never put on airs or acted as if she thought she was better than everyone else. For example, after President Lincoln was assassinated, his successor was the very unpopular Andrew Johnson. According to Margarita Spalding Gerry, writing in The Century Magazine in September 1908, Johnson’s wife was ill with consumption (what we today call tuberculosis) and unable to perform the duties now expected of the First Lady, although Gerry noted that despite being too ill to host dinners or greet people at receptions, Mrs. Johnson still tried to be a positive influence on her husband and his administration from behind the scenes, encouraging her husband to maintain an attitude of “toleration and gentleness” (655). But the job of being Hostess in Chief and Mistress of the White House fell to one of Johnson’s daughters, Martha (Mrs. David) Patterson, wife of a senator from Tennessee. Mrs. Patterson became very popular with the press: she was praised for always acting with discretion, and became known for her modesty, as well as for being “honest and direct” (656). Catherine F. Cavanagh in The Bookman also praised her lack of extravagance, at a time when people in the south were still suffering, she understood this was not a time to be ostentatious; where Mrs. Lincoln was criticized for trying to scale back on state dinners, evidently Mrs. Patterson got a more favorable reaction, due undoubtedly to how many Americans were still in shock over the tragic death of President Lincoln and somehow, fancy formal dances seemed out of place. Cavanagh writes that Mrs. Patterson “set a good example to society by wearing simple dresses, and preferring a white japonica in her hair to jeweled bandeaux.” And while people deeply disliked her father, the president, they regarded her with “respect and admiration” (Cavanagh, 528). Similarly, Karin Michaelis, writing in The Living Age in 1925 about her interview with President Woodrow Wilson, commented about the First Lady, praising her for being frugal, and relating that Mrs. Wilson did not like to spend large amounts of money on fancy clothes (137).

Here again, we see the qualities of the ideal First Lady, as they were disseminated by the popular press: whether she is the president’s wife or a close female relative, the ideal First Lady understands that she must find a happy medium between being fashionable and being showy; she must love to entertain and be an excellent hostess at diplomatic functions and charitable events; and she must always maintain an attitude of warmth and courtesy, putting the needs (and expectations) of the country ahead of her own, no matter what is happening around her. Further, if the president himself is boorish, as Andrew Jackson was accused of being, she is somehow supposed to preserve good manners and restore courtliness—which Jackson’s niece, Emily Donelson was unable to do: she served in the role of Mistress of the White House at the beginning of Jackson’s presidency, and she was vilified by the press for not entertaining enough and for being unable to curb Jackson’s excesses. A 1908 piece in Munsey’s Magazine reiterated that she had been part of a socially inept regime, and the White House was not restored to its “social brilliance” until Martin Van Buren took office and his daughter-in-law Angelica assumed the duties of First Lady (Orr 712). The tendency in many of the magazine articles of the 1880s-1920s was to compare First Ladies who were seen as failures with those who were seen as successes. Often, it was women like Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolly Madison who were held up as having exemplified the successful First Lady, a woman able to gracefully handle the many demands of the position, as women like Emily Donelson and Mary Todd Lincoln did not.

If we fast-forward to 2012, we can still see echoes of the past in the coverage that Michelle Obama receives; and while an analysis of that coverage it outside the scope of this essay, suffice it to say that Mrs. Obama, who had to give up her successful career in business, has become well-loved for her commitment to fighting childhood obesity and for her willingness to wear clothes from department stores (she likes Target, we are told) with the same ease that she wears designer dresses. And while at times she does get out and campaign on behalf of her husband, she has learned not to say too much about the issues: she has been vilified by her critics for several remarks she made, accused of being insufficiently patriotic and of being “angry” (Douglas 14). And as with previous outspoken First Ladies, she seems to have decided that discretion is the better part of valor: while it is now acceptable to interview a First Lady, Mrs. Obama earns the most praise when talking about her children or discussing traditionally “feminine” topics like her garden; and what she wears is the subject of frequent discussion on the blogs. Thus, for those of us who study social history and popular culture, it appears that the more things change, the more they stay the same. As Emily Newell Blair noted in 1927, the increased media attention paid to the First Ladies has not always brought them positive results. A good example from Mrs. Blair’s time is what happened to First Lady Louanne “Lou” Hoover, wife of President Herbert Hoover. Although society was changing and women were gaining greater opportunities, the belief that First Ladies should not make waves persisted. In mid-1929, Mrs. Hoover gave the first radio talk by a First Lady, on behalf of her favorite charity, the Girl Scouts. Unfortunately, that was not what she was remembered for that year: she earned the scorn of many in the press by daring to invite a black congressman’s wife to one of her White House Teas. Worse yet, according to some reports, she shook the woman’s hand. It was a time when segregation was still the law of the land, and Mrs. Hoover found herself taken to task by newspapers and magazines throughout the south, several of which suggested she had just doomed her husband’s re-election (“A White House” 10).

As contemporary First Ladies try to navigate what they can and cannot do, the magazines of a century ago show that trying to define their proper role has gone on for a very long time. In 1901, Marian West discussed the public’s attitude about First Lady Lucy Hayes. Mrs. Hayes was a “new woman”– educated and known to have opinions about current events, even if she did not express those opinions in public; she was also her husband’s “counselor and friend.” But fortunately for Mrs. Hayes, she was able to prove that “a woman [could] still be womanly” even if she was highly intelligent and had opinions about politics—she won the public’s approval by “mothering eight children with marked devotion,” by being cordial, and by having a “pleasant spirit” (895). Then as now, First Ladies who enjoyed being the Mother in Chief as well as the Hostess in Chief (and who avoided saying anything controversial in public) have been regarded approvingly in the popular press.

In fact, with only an occasional exception, content analysis of mass-appeal magazines from 1880 to1930 demonstrated a clear preference for the traditional First Lady—the woman who knew her place and was happy to occupy it. While a discussion of why this might be so is a good topic for another essay, some scholars have noted that the majority of the magazines had male editors, most of the reporters were men, and educators had not yet challenged gender roles—the “women’s movement” was years away, as were feminist critiques of popular culture. That said, studying the magazines of that era can provide us with greater insight into how the “president’s wife” was gradually transformed into the “First Lady,” and how the mainstream press came to expect certain specific attributes from the women holding the title. But while such historical research is helpful in understanding past perceptions of the First Lady’s role, it does not explain how the mythic image of the First Lady (the woman who is the ideal wife and mother, masterful at the social graces, a fashionable dresser, and an example for other wives to emulate) acquired such staying power, even in our modern age.


Adams, Charles Francis. “Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams.” North American Review, October 1840.

A White House Tea-Party Tempest.” Literary Digest, 29 June 1929.

Bassett, A.L. “Reminiscences of Washington.” The Century Magazine, May 1877.

Bugbee, Emma. “A New Interpretation of the First Lady’s Role.” Literary Digest, 16 September 1933.

Bullard, F. Lauriston. “Daughters of Clergymen.” Munsey’s Magazine, March 1913.

Blair, Emily Newell. “Wives in Politics.” The Forum, October 1927.

Cavanagh, Catherine F(rances). “Historic Washington Homes.” Munsey’s Magazine, March 1899.

Cavanagh, Catherine Frances. “Stories of Our Government Bureaus.” The Bookman, April 1911.

Centennial Cookery.” The Century Magazine, April 1876.

Douglas, Susan J. “Damned If Feminine, Damned if Feminist.” In These Times, July 2008.

Fawcett, Waldon. “Social Life in Washington.” The Smart Set, January 1903.

Gerry, Margarita Spalding. “Andrew Johnson in the White House.” The Century Magazine, September 1908.

Hamilton, J.G. de Roulhac. “Abigail Adams: A Joy Forever.” Scribner’s, January 1930.

Holliday, Carl. “Heroines of Yesterday: Wives and Mothers of the American Revolution.” Munsey’s Magazine, March 1919.

Hunt, Gaillard. “A Christmas at Mount Vernon.” The Bookman, April 1911.

In the Public Eye.” Munsey’s Magazine, May 1902.

Ladies First and Second.” Colliers, 22 June 1929.

Michaelis, Karin. “On President Wilson’s Trail.” Living Age, July 1925.

Moore, Charles. “The Restoration of the White House.” The Century Magazine, April 1903.

Munsey, Frank A. “A Year on the Upward Slope.” Munsey’s Magazine, March 1906.

Nelson, Henry Loomis. “The Capital of our Democracy.” The Century Magazine, May 1902.

O’Brien, Robert Lincoln. “Social Life At the White House.” Munsey’s Magazine, June 1905.

Orr, Lyndon. “The Most Brilliant Days of Old-Time Washington Society.” Munsey’s Magazine, March 1908.

Palmer, John Williamson. “Old Georgetown: A Social Panorama.” The Century Magazine, April 1897.

Peck, Harry Thurston. “Twenty Years of the Republic.” The Bookman, February 1905.

Personal Glimpses: First Ladies of the Land, Past and Present.” Literary Digest, 9 May 1925.

Personal Glimpses: Some ‘Boudoir Mirrors of Washington.’” Literary Digest, 19 January 1924.

Phelps, William Lyons. “As I Like It.” Scribner’s, July 1929.

Phelps, William Lyons. “As I Like It.” Scribner’s, October 1929.

Self-Expression of College Women.” The Outlook, October 1894.

Steell, Willis. “Mrs. Abraham Lincoln and Her Friends.” Munsey’s Magazine, February 1909.

Tarbell, Ida M. “Abraham Lincoln.” McClure’s Magazine, April 1896.

Tarbell, Ida M. “The Death of Abraham Lincoln.” McClure’s Magazine, August 1899.

West, Marian. “Our Four Year Queens.” Munsey’s Magazine, September 1901.




This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.