By definition, the office of first lady plays a supporting role in American politics. That makes information about some of the most influential women in United States history difficult to find. But in the new book First Ladies of the United States, from Smithsonian Books, author Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, the National Portrait Gallery's senior historian and director of history, research, and scholarship, aims to highlight the women of the White House through insightful essays into their lives set alongside 84 gorgeous portraits that further reveal their characters.
“First ladies are super important to the history of the country, but to say they’ve gotten second importance to the president isn’t even coming close to how under-researched their lives are,” DuBois Shaw tells Mental Floss. “First ladies don’t have sites in the way that presidents do, and so while presidents have these libraries and foundation centers, first ladies have not been memorialized in the same way.”
Though the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., famously houses portraits of past presidents, this title shifts the spotlight directly to imagery of the first ladies, showing them not just as the wives of America’s leaders, but as politicians, philanthropists, cultural influencers, and complex human beings.
That last part was especially vital to DuBois Shaw as she approached the project. The resources that are available on first ladies often give a sanitized version of events, and she was determined to include the full picture. “We hear stories about the dresses that they wear and the parties that they throw and that they served as ambassadors for literacy and things like that, but we don’t hear about the crises that they had to overcome,” she says.
Rachel Jackson is an example of a woman who endured hardship prior to and during her relationship with a powerful politician. After leaving her abusive first husband, she married Andrew Jackson thinking she had been granted a divorce. When it was revealed that her previous marriage was still valid, she was painted as a bigamist and attacked by her husband’s opponents. “That’s a story that really affected her life, and may have driven her to an early grave,” DuBois Shaw says. Rachel Jackson died at age 61 just days after her husband was elected president in 1829.
For some first ladies, their greatest struggle was being an ambitious woman born in the wrong era. DuBois Shaw places Mary Todd Lincoln under this category. Though history books often mention the “Hellcat’s” poor health, extravagant spending, and violent mood swings, important context may be missing from these depictions. Before she entered the White House, Mary Todd Lincoln exhibited an intelligence and interest in politics that reflected her husband's ambitions.
“I think she becomes very frustrated, and she channels all of that energy she can’t put into politics into shopping,” DuBois Shaw says. “She buys all these clothes and people say awful things about her. I want to rehabilitate her historically, because I think she’s a woman who, had she lived at a different moment, would have had a very different outcome, and the gender roles of that period confined her to a role that ultimately drove her mad.”
The portraits included in the book also provide insight into how the first ladies were viewed in their time and how they are remembered today. One of the most elegant images in the book shows Helen “Nellie” Taft seated in a flowing gown in a garden outside the White House. As the first first lady to insist on being a part of her husband’s inaugural parade, the flamboyant depiction is fitting.
Decades later, Eleanor Roosevelt would pose for a much different portrait. Her black-and-white photograph included in First Ladies shows her with a toothy smile and a pen in one hand—a reference to her work as a writer.
Some of the hurdles the first ladies were up against will sound archaic to modern readers, while others—like the contradicting pressures placed on women in politics—may seem surprisingly familiar. First Ladies of the United States is a fascinating look at the evolution of the office, but just as interesting as the ways the position has changed is what has stayed the same. DuBois Shaw says, “I was really struck by the challenges some of them had faced. They were very relatable to the challenges women face today.”
First Ladies of the United States features portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, the White House, the National First Ladies' Library, the New-York Historical Society, and more. It's available for $19.95 on Amazon.