Closer Readings Commentary

Remembering the First Ladies

“...In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I would desire you would Remember the Ladies. . . . Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. . . . If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” —Abigail Adams

The sentiments expressed in this letter written March 31, 1776, by Abigail Adams to her husband, future president, John Adams, were way ahead of their time. Legislative representation by women did not materialize until 1917, when Jeannette Rankin was elected the first female member of the House of Representatives. Of course women of America had to wait even longer for the right to vote, which didn’t arrive until 1920, with the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment. Examining such primary source material available from the Massachusetts Historical Society’s comprehensive archive of the Adams correspondence offers students a glimpse into the insight this future first lady brought to the fledgling role as it was being defined in the early days of the republic.

In the absence of official power throughout American history, first ladies have needed to find imaginative ways to influence the world in which they lived, ensuring they would have an impact during and a legacy beyond their presidential administration. According to Mary Regula, founding chair and president, National Board of Directors for The First Ladies’ Library, believes they were among the women who were able to play “a significant role in shaping the political and social history of our country, impacting virtually every topic that has been debated.”

Teaching about First Ladies in American History

EDSITEment’s lesson Remembering the Ladies, the First Ladies explores the ways in which individual first ladies were able to impact the nation while juggling multiple expectations placed on them inside and outside the White House. This lesson is geared to the elementary level, but can be adapted for students in other grades.

The lesson opens with a visual analysis in which students look at historical photographic images of previous first couples to distinguish details and determine differences in these portraits. Then it goes deeper, considering the multifaceted role of the first lady. Students examine a series of historical examples to illustrate how differently each handled traditional duties assigned to them, such as:

  • Setting fashion standards
  • Uplifting the national spirit during a crisis
  • Serving as the White House representative in areas of special interest to women
  • Campaigning for her husband (both with and without him)
  • Promoting charities and causes
  • Accompanying the president at important functions
  • Making good will travel missions
  • Serving as White House hostess and decorator
  • Maintaining the role of wife and mother
  • Taking an interest in White House restoration, renovation, and preservation

Activity 3 has students uncover a variety of non-traditional roles some first ladies have elected to play. It also looks at ways certain first ladies have continued to leave a mark on society after leaving the White House. Examples include:

  • Advising the president
  • Lobbying for causes
  • Taking a high-profile moral stand
  • Assuming important roles after being first lady
  • Taking a stand for the rights of women
  • Having a career

Working individually or in small groups, students then have the opportunity to get to know some of the nation's first ladies with whom they are likely to be less familiar. (Biographies are available from the White House: The First Ladies website and the National First Ladies Library.) The lesson concludes with a consideration of why some first ladies are remembered more than others. Does it depend on a particular first lady’s actions, appearance, personality, and treatment by the media, or does it have more to do with the historical moment when a first lady finds herself in the national spotlight and the status of women in the larger society at that point in time?

As you work through the lesson, it is important to underline for students that the role of the first lady in our nation’s history has always been determined by a variety of norms, forces, events, abilities, and personalities. Each first lady must find her own way to actualize herself in this role.

Aligns with the following Common Core Standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.3: Explain events, procedures, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text, including what happened and why, based on specific information in the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.7:  Interpret information presented visually and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.

Additional resources to learn about first ladies:

National First Ladies Library website offers background on the women who served as first ladies and includes a section for educators with lesson plans for all grade levels.

The First Ladies exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of American History dates back to 1914, and conveys artifacts not only of the wives of presidents, but also references other women who took on the social duties of first lady in some presidential administrations. It includes an interactive presentation with a virtual tour of gallery items such as inaugural gowns (and includes a video “Preparing the gowns for the First Ladies Exhibition.”)

The White House: The First Ladies website offers brief biographies and some images of the nation’s first ladies in chronological order.