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Photojournalism and the American Presidency - Reading America's Photos
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Focusing on the First Ladies: Who are these women and what role do they play in our lives?

A Curriculum Unit that Examines the Lives and Contributions of the American First Ladies from 1960 to the Present.

Former First Ladies Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Betty Ford, Reagan and Bush at the Ronald Reagan Library, © Wally McNamee, UT Center for American History

The First Lady

“Someday, I hope that someone will take the time to consider the role of the First Lady and assess the many burdens she has to bear and the many contributions she makes.”

Harry S. Truman, President, 1945-1953

Before the invention of photography most Americans had little idea what their president or his wife looked like. As photograph and film images became available it was easier for the American public to develop a relationship with the First Family. The activities of the First Family became a part of the everyday life of John Q. Public. Researchers call this kind of relationship, “para-social interaction.” Viewers begin to believe that they know the people they see in print or on television in the same way they know their friends and associates. Psychologically these relationships have the same characteristics as a real friendship or enmity which is why there is often a massive outpouring of public grief when a President is injured or ill, or a national frenzy over a wedding in the White House.

America's interest in and affection for the various women who have served as First Lady has depended largely on the way the media has portrayed her. Jacqueline Kennedy was the first president's wife to have her own press secretary who managed the relationship between the President's wife and the media. Each First Lady since then has developed her own relationship with the press through her own efforts and through the careful attention of the President's advisers. Presidential advisers closely monitor the way the First Lady is perceived by the media and the public because her approval rating can have a direct effect on the popularity of the President.

The role of the First Lady of the United States of America has evolved since the days of Martha Washington. Each of the women who served in this capacity has made her own contribution to the position. Some of the women such as Abigail Adams, Dolly Madison, and Eleanor Roosevelt publicly played active roles as adviser to their husbands and were influential in his decisions about political issues. Other women such as Leticia Tyler, Lucretia Garfield, Eliza Johnson and Ida McKinnley played little or no role in public life after their husbands were elected. The first three women had serious illnesses that prevented them from participating in social or ceremonial activities; Mrs. McKinnley was in deep mourning for her son who died shortly before her husband's election.

Even though she is neither elected or appointed to her position, the job requires that the First Lady be on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. She receives no salary or other monetary compensations for her work. She has to be willing to accept that everything she says, everything she wears, every action she takes will be closely monitored, reported, and commented on by the media. Every thing she does in her role as First Lady will be criticized and praised. Her life before her time in the White House will be closely scrutinized and it will be necessary for her to build a relationship with the American public that is based primarily on how the media portrays her.

A closer look at the eight women who have served as First Lady from 1960 until 2001 reveals that each of them brought their own unique story and style to the White House. All of them have faced challenges that might break a lesser woman. Each of them has touched a different place in America's heart. Being the First Lady is a difficult job that each of these women performed with their own particular grace and style.

Video Resources:

“The First Ladies” - Lewis L. Gould, Ph.D.

“Images: The First Rough Contact Prints of History” - Lewis L. Gould, Ph.D.

Photograph by: Wally McNamee, 1991  
Former First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush gather for a photograph at the opening of the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California.   Return to Learning Tools page
The Briscoe Center for American History