Feisty First Ladies
Saving the Constitution, defending democracy, and...running the country?
In war, as in peace, from presidential pillow talk to morale-boosting visits to the troops, first ladies have been hailed and reviled as everything from heroine-in-chief to villainess-in-waiting. The wartime spouses past provide Laura Bush with a multiplicity of models for rallying--or keeping quiet--on today's home front.
ACTION HERO: During the War of 1812, despite rumors that British forces had targeted her for capture, Dolley Madison refused to vacate the White House. This marked the first and only time a first lady was physically threatened by war, according to author Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian who works with the National First Ladies' Library. More dramatically, in the midst of the British assault on Washington in August 1814, Mrs. Madison would not retreat to safety until she could gather up cabinet papers, historical artifacts like the drafts of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and Gilbert Stuart's famous portrait of George Washington. "She kept her head and her presence of mind," says Dorothy Schneider, coauthor of First Ladies: A Biographical Dictionary.
CONFIDANT: Sarah Polk was a behind-the-scenes influence as her husband's confidential secretary. A strong proponent of Manifest Destiny and the Mexican-American War, she showed her support through numerous White House receptions honoring the military, says Anthony. In thanks, the troops brought her back from Mexico a larger-than-life portrait of Cortes.
OUTSIDER: Troubled Mary Lincoln "lived in a geographical and political no woman's land," says Jennifer Fleischner, author of Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly. As a daughter of the slave state of Kentucky, the antislavery, pro-union Mrs. Lincoln was branded a traitor by the South. Meanwhile, the North questioned her loyalty, accusing her of spying for the Confederate Army, in which one of her brothers and three of her half-brothers served. Washington society dismissed her as an unschooled westerner, and she was further seen as out of touch with the country's grim mood, hosting balls and spending excessively to refurbish the White House. "No one denied that the White House was shabby," says Fleischner. "But she was ordering handmade wallpapers and china and carpets." The public wasn't aware that Mrs. Lincoln made frequent hospital visits to the war wounded. Mistakenly, from the view of her public image, Mrs. Lincoln did not allow reporters to accompany her, says Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. According to Craig Schermer, a historian for the National First Ladies' Library, she said her visits were those of "Mrs. Lincoln, not Mrs. President Lincoln."
MISSIONARY: Ida McKinley's image has always been enigmatic. Yet, says Anthony, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the semi-invalid mustered strength to convince her husband that he should retain control of the Philippine Islands. Her motive: support of Methodist missionary efforts there.
PRESIDENTRESS: From the get-go, Edith Wilson, who married the widowed president after a whirlwind romance in 1915, blurred the line between the personal and the political, says Phyllis Lee Levin, author of Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House. The president himself was complicit, teaching her secret codes so she could help him read and respond to classified messages in the run-up to World War I. On the positive side, Mrs. Wilson worked with the Red Cross, volunteered at military canteens, and even let sheep whose wool would be used for uniforms graze on the White House lawn. But her single-minded devotion led to a monumental misjudgment in the wake of her husband's massive stroke of Oct. 2, 1919, Levin believes. Insisting that the incapacitated president could still govern, Mrs. Wilson (with the backing of the president's physician) resisted any suggestion that her husband yield to the vice president. She assumed the role of gatekeeper, funneling to him only those issues she deemed important enough for him to attend to and severely limiting access by his cabinet and members of Congress. Mrs. Wilson claimed she merely carried out her husband's wishes; Levin disagrees. "It was a great deception," she says. "For many months, we didn't really have a president; we had her." Historians continue to argue about the extent of power wielded by the "lady president."