First Lady is to live in the spotlight. Like it or not, the First Lady is a role model for thousands of women, not just in the United States, but also worldwide. What she says, what she does, how she conducts herself in certain situations, even how she chooses to decorate the White House -- these things and more are all examined by the people and the press and given close scrutiny.
Three First Ladies who each had to deal with criticism, controversy, and pressure in their time are Eleanor Roosevelt, Barbara Bush, and Nancy Reagan. This paper will examine each of them in turn and compare and contrast their influence, impact, and character as First Lady.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a thoroughly modern woman for her time and refused to adopt the stereotypes and confining image of women as they were in her day. She was strong, outspoken (although painfully shy), and not afraid to use her influence. Much of Eleanor's character as a woman was formed at a very young age. In 1892, when she was just eight years old, her mother died from diphtheria. She and her brothers were sent to live with their grandmother because, as Eleanor said, "My grandmother did not feel that she could trust my father to take care of us" (Roosevelt, p. 19). This was because her father was a man who was rather flighty in temperament and suffered from ill health. Throughout Eleanor's first six years of life, in fact, her father spent a great deal of time away from the family in a sanitarium.
Shortly thereafter, Eleanor's father came to visit her and told her that she and him were to keep close together, that she and her brothers were all he had left. Eleanor, being just eight years old, took this to mean that "he and I were very close together, and some day would have a life of our own together" (Roosevelt, p. 20). In the meantime, she was to "write often...be a good girl, not give any trouble, study hard, and grow up into a woman he could be proud of" (Roosevelt, p. 21). However, less than two years later, her father died of alcoholism.
Eleanor did not forget the instructions her father gave her, taking this responsibility quite seriously. In fact, she was such a strong woman with well-thought-out opinions that when she met FDR and they got married, she was torn between her own burgeoning political career and supporting that of her husband.
When Eleanor was 15 years old, she was sent to the Allenswood Academy in London, England. While there, Eleanor developed lifelong interests in politics, social causes, history, and literature. Upon her return to New York, she joined various social-reform organizations, including the National Consumers' League, which sought to improve working conditions for women, and volunteered as a teacher in settlement houses (charitable establishments that offered social services to the urban poor). "Very early," she says, "I became conscious of the fact that there were men and women and children around me who suffered in one way or another" (Roosevelt, p. 27).
Her experiences as a younger woman, thus formed her into a lifelong champion of poor and marginalized people, both during and after her husband's presidency. Eleanor was known as "the First Lady of the World," a name given to her by President Harry Truman.
As First Lady, Eleanor was able to use her position of power to influence her husband's policies as well as establish programs of her own and help the people who were suffering. Initially, however, FDR "was ambivalent about his wife's political career and her emergent activist style...he...worried that Eleanor's pronouncements on various controversies might tarnish his very polished veneer" (Wiesen Cook, p. 302). However, FDR's fears were soon put to rest.
Eleanor provided a welcome display of genuine caring during a time of great national crisis. She lobbied her husband's Cabinet to provide greater relief for women and to develop special programs to help destitute youths. She also had a hand in the creation of the Works Progress Administration, which created work projects for the unemployed, and the associated Federal Arts Project, Federal Writers Project, and Federal Theater Project to help unemployed artists, scholars, writers, and actors" (Eleanor Roosevelt, 2002).
Eleanor Roosevelt was also a strong advocate for African-Americans -- one of the first white people to do so -- protesting against racial discrimination within all levels of the federal government. She successfully lobbied for equal payment of federal aid money to blacks and equal administration of federal programs. In 1935, she became the first white resident of Washington, D.C., to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)" (Eleanor Roosevelt, 2002).
Barbara Bush was a First Lady who was also known for her straightforwardness and down-to-earth nature. She was also a woman who, like Eleanor, was unafraid to go after what she wanted in life, even when it meant she suffered at the hands of gossips. In her memoir, Barbara recounts a story in which, in order to protect herself, Barbara's roommate revealed her secret engagement to George Bush when another girl was going around the college campus saying that Barbara and her roommate, Margie, were lovers. Recalling the incident, Barbara wrote, "I was shocked...what a protective life I had lived...I had never been the victim of gossip before. It was a lesson -- then and now -- you shouldn't believe everything you hear" (Bush, p. 20). Thus, Barbara was prepared early in life for the slings and arrows that the media would aim at her during her time as First Lady.
Barbara also had a reputation as a thrifty, resourceful woman. For example, when it came to visiting her new grandson in Texas after his birth, Barbara said, "I can't just hop on a plane and fly to see my new grandson in Texas...the taxpayers would have to pay for the Secret Service agents who would have to go with me" (Kilian, p. 198).
Of the three women discussed in this essay, Eleanor Roosevelt had the strongest influence on her husband's policy-making and decision-making. As mentioned, she was directly involved in the formation of some of FDR's most well-known programs, such as the Works Progress Administration and the New Deal. Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan, on the other hand, were content to provide advice when asked, but who largely kept to their own agendas.
Like other First Ladies, Barbara Bush used her position to convey messages and implement programs that she felt would be of benefit to the country. A lifelong champion of literacy, Barbara launched her Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy in 1989. Through this, reading programs throughout the United States were given support. Believing that increased literacy would ameliorate other social ills, Barbara frequently urged those she knew or met to become reading tutors (Barbara Bush, 2002).
Her involvement also extended to areas of medical concern, especially the effort to conquer leukemia, the disease that claimed one of her daughters in early childhood. She volunteered her time and energy in fund-raising and in visiting cancer patients. In addition, she personally assisted the efforts of soup kitchens and homeless people's shelters (Barbara Bush, 2002).
Nancy Reagan, although a different type of woman from Eleanor Roosevelt and Barbara Bush, was no less a controversial, fascinating, and influential woman in her own right. She was well aware of her position and influence as First Lady and says in the foreword to her memoirs, "Everything I said or did seemed to generate a controversy...during the first year...people thought I was overly concerned with trivialities...the final year...some of the same people were convinced I was running the show" (Reagan, p. vii).
However, when it came to asserting her influence, despite what the critics said, William F. Buckley noted that "in private surroundings, she will let her opinion be known...in public situations, she is deferential, not in the sense that she feels women should be subordinate in public circumstances, but because she feels that it's her husband who has been elected" (Wallace, p. 9). Furthermore, Nancy herself has said, "I don't have as much 'clout' as they say I do...but I do get involved in people's issues. I think I'm aware of people who are trying to take advantage of my husband, who are trying to end-run him" (Wallace, p. 41).
Contrary to what the press has said, others back that up. For example, Nancy Reynolds, a Reagan family friend, said in an interview, "I don't think on substance you can say that Nancy Reagan has influenced policy. She expresses herself, as we all do to the President when we have the opportunity. He always listens intently...Many times she's right and he's not right...She never claims to be an expert" (Wallace, p. 50).
In her role as First Lady, Nancy spent many hours visiting veterans, the elderly, and the emotionally and physically handicapped, and gave her support to the Foster Grandparent Program. She was…