First Ladies are often overlooked for their role in and contribution to history. Mainly viewed alongside their presidential husbands, each first lady holds an intriguing past, and a mind that has seen behind the walls of the White House. Nearly all presidential First Ladies have memoirs or biographies, but they are often overshadowed by their incredibly powerful husbands. Let’s take a look at the women behind the scene?
First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic Americans by Susan Swain and C-SPAN
Take a well-rounded, informative look at all 45 First Ladies. Historian and author Susan Swain uncovers how each was influential while their husband was in office, whether it was helping them make decisions, covering up a health issue, or contributing to a more favorable public image. Swain and C-SPAN pack a lot of information into this book, but succeed in making an intriguing biography of all women, with up-close examinations of each fascinating First Lady.
Secret Lives of the First Ladies is a more candid and controversial investigation and display of the First Ladies than Swain’s book. Author Cormac O’Brien addresses less than savory questions about these women, like how many of them owned slaves? What odd habits did they practice in their off-time? In displaying the personal, sometimes uncomfortable, aspects of famous First Ladies, Secret Lives humanizes former presidents. This is definitely a more gossipy book with juicy details that some may question the validity of, but O’Brien shines a bright light on women so often omitted from history lessons.
Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography by Jean H. Baker
Jean H. Baker does an excellent job detailing the complicated life of Abraham Lincoln’s intelligent and devoted wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary Todd Lincoln went through incredible violence at the Frontier during her childhood, lost her mother at young age, fled her home and married Abraham Lincoln, witnessed his assassination as well as the death of all but one of her children, and faced great illness towards the end of her life. She is a woman in history people both love and hate, but she is without a doubt a notable woman in history. While Baker certainly writes with a strong feminist voice, the biography is extremely well-researched and presents an fascinating conversation of mental illness under the lime-light.
A White House Diary by Lady Bird Johnson
Lady Bird Johnson entered the white house with her husband, Lyndon Johnson, under the most tragic of circumstances: the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But what happened during Johnson’s presidency from 1963 to 1969, and what did Lady Bird think during this tumultuous time of United States history? This former First Lady kept a beautifully written diary that delves into various conundrums the Johnson administration faced through the eyes of a thoughtful and intelligent woman. You may be surprised by her contribution to U.S infrastructure as well (i.e. The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 passed under Johnson).
Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush
Laura Bush was First Lady under one of the most beloved and hated presidents in United States and World history, but was known as an incredibly private First Lady. Rather than picking apart her husband’s career, Laura Bush examines her own life, with bits about her relationship with the former President in a sincere voice never before seen from the reserved former First Lady. Regardless of political views, Spoken from the Heart, is a beautiful and thoughtfully-written memoir that opens readers up to the life of Laura Bush, outside of her famous husband.
Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation by Cokie Roberts
Founding Mothers truly brings history alive with intimate primary sources from the diaries, personal recipe books, handwritten letters, and interviews with First Ladies. Award winning author Cokie Roberts shows just how important the president’s wives have been in shaping American history, from revolutionary writings and social action to influencing the Declaration of Independence. Starting in the early 1700’s and ending with George Washington’s presidency, Founding Mothers offers an intriguing historical perspective of the first U.S. politicians and the period that made America a prominent part of the world.
Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol 1, 1884-1933 by Blanche Wiesen-Cook
Eleanor Roosevelt is perhaps the most famous First Wife of one of the most famous U.S. presidents in history. Author and feminist scholar Blanche Weisen-Cook explores Eleanor from her roots, where even as a child she flourished as an independent female, overcoming exhausting situations through her life as a fighter for social change. Weisen-Cook does an excellent job portraying Eleanor as an intelligent, albeit not perfect, woman, vastly overshadowed by her husband but wholeheartedly deserving of her own place in history class.
Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies by J.B. West with Mary Lynn Kotz
J.B West gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the White House and the Presidents’ wives from the mind of someone who saw so much of what went down, first hand. As chief usher of the White House for 28 years, West experienced the personal and political struggles and triumphs of a number of first families. He provides insight into just how instrumental many First Ladies were in supporting their presidential spouses while detailing their personalities and interests. West worked closely with every presidential family from Roosevelt to Nixon, and Upstairs at the White House tactically absorbs the reader into each Presidential period.
Ellen and Edith: Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies by Kristie Miller
Considering Woodrow Wilson is one of the most studied presidents in American History, little is known about the women who helped shape him. His first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, died a year and half after he entered the White House. Ellen had a much more profound impact on Wilson, thus on history, than most realize. Edith Bolling Wilson, his second wife, was much more famous, but left a controversial legacy. Historian Kristie Miller presents each wife as an individual – both often misunderstood and under-appreciated. Ellen and Edith is a compelling read and shows the importance of relationships in shaping history. Miller provides excellent proof and examples that no man works alone, women too often fall under the shadows of their male counterparts, and how easily a woman is ravaged by gossip.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story by Barbara Leaming
She is known for many things, but Jackie O is perhaps most famous for witnessing her husband’s assassination as she sat within inches of the young president. Barbara Leaming eloquently writes about the moment that changed the First Lady, and how she struggled with PTSD and coped afterwards. We see a moving personal account of the radical, charming, and intelligent Jackie O from before her marriage, through her complicated relationship with JFK, and how she changed, grew, and succeeded as her own person after the assassination.
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