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First ladies.

First Ladies.

Betty Boyd Carol. Oxford University, $19.95. This book has more information than you probably ever wanted to know about the wives of the presidents. It's no doubt sexist to note it will be more interesting to women than to men, but anyone curious about the politics of the changing roles of women in our social history will find much to ponder here.

Consider the title of the wife of the president. For years no one knew exactly how to address her. She's been called "Mrs. President' and "Presidentress.' But how she has been acknowledged tells us as much about the politics of the time as about the woman.

Martha Washington, for example, was sometimes called Lady Washington because pomp and circumstance were still fresh in the collective memory of the fledgling republic. Since she refused to talk about politics, she was handled gently by the press. Abigail Adams, who followed her, was mercilessly ridiculed for being foolish in "loyally supporting her husband's views.'

James Buchanan, one of the two bachelors to be elected president (the other was Grover Cleveland, and he married while occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), heard his niece, who acted as his hostess, described as "Our Democratic Queen.' But because Buchanan was not married, he was suspect in another way. The New York Times compared his treacherous nature to that of Cain and Judas Iscariot, two historical villains who also lacked a softening female influence in their lives.

If the public clamored for the president to have a wife, it also expected her influence to remain within the sphere of traditional women's work.

Lucy Hayes, wife of Rutherford, is typical. Hailed as a "New Woman' because of her college education, she knew better than to speak on behalf of the suffragettes. Instead she gave birth to eight children in 20 years and focused her attention on her husband's career. Washington's sophisticates found her intolerably dull--they dubbed her "Lemonade Lucy' for banning alcohol from the White House. But when she accompanied her husband across the expanding country, the first presidential couple to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific, newspapers hailed her as the "first lady of the land.'

"First Lady' as a title flourished, although Jacqueline Kennedy initially forbade her staff to use it. Nancy Reagan has been accused of elevating the role of First Lady to that of an "Associate Presidency.' But her influence pales next to that of Edith Wilson. When husband Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke, she guarded entry to his bedside with such ferocity that some observers said she was president, exercising "petticoat government.'

No matter what you want to call her, the wife of the president usually has the power inherent in most wives, that of "pillow talk.' Such intimate, ill-defined, but very real power inevitably troubles an American public, guaranteeing an ambivalent response to a First Lady's unelected role in political life.
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Copyright 1987, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Fields, Suzanne
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1987
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