The 3:30 Project is a collaborative blog by three lifelong friends: Maggie, Mary Margaret and Jillian. In the United States, we celebrate President’s Day on the third Monday of February to honor the contribution our executive leaders have made to our country. Today we wanted to reflect on some of our First Ladies and the impact they have had on our country both in supporting their husbands and the impacts they’ve had on our country in their own right.
Abigail Adams: First Lady 1797-1801
Abigail Adams had me at “remember the ladies.”
If you’re not familiar with this quote, here’s where it comes from: when John Adams and the rest of the Continental Congress decided to declare the American colonies’ independence from Great Britain, Abigail wrote to her husband and said:
“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
I have a real affinity for women who don’t “know their place.” Abigail Adams voiced political opinions, believed in equal rights for women and the abolition of slavery way before it was cool. I don’t know that I agree with her that “all men would be tyrants if they could,” but I do believe that when we all have a voice at the table, we get better results.
Throughout their marriage, John and Abigail Adams exchanged letters discussing politics and policy. Abigail kept John informed about news and public opinion when he was overseas, at the capital and throughout the Revolutionary War. She challenged his opinion and encouraged him, as she does in this letter, to live up to his highest ideals. John Adams’ political opponents targeted her for being “too involved” and being “too opinionated.”
I think we all know people (and sometimes are those people) who can’t keep their mouth shut or turn off our desire to advocate for the causes we believe in. And I also believe that we need extremists like Abigail Adams to push us forward as a nation.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Abigail believed this, too, and wanted our government to reflect this belief from day 1. I am still astounded by how revolutionary the idea of equality was and is. I have a hard time believing that it was self evident in 1776 that “all men are created equal.” America was a land where there was slavery, where only white men could own land, Native Americans were routinely kicked off their land, and women didn’t have a seat at the table in the Continental Congress. Equality hardly seems self-evident. And yet, we wrote it into our founding documents and Constitution anyway. We were and still are in the process of becoming America because equality is not always clear, easy or practical. Equality is a fragile and moving target. Even if we catch or touch equality for a moment, it wrinkles like your clothes, gets dirty like dishes and flies away like butterfly – we must constantly seek, maintain and protect it.
I also find it reassuring that although the speed and mediums of our conversations have changed – we have television, social media and blogs to amplify our voices in ways that the Abigail Adams would never have dreamed of – over 240 years later the substance of our debates and national drama remains remarkably consistent. What do we value? How do we include everyone at the table? What do freedom and equality look like? How can we make our country look more like the vision we have for it?
Abigail Powers Fillmore: First Lady 1850-1853
No longer being in possession of my First Ladies’ Coloring Book, I approached this topic the way any self-respecting Millenial would: Google search “List of First Ladies.” And instantly I discovered my topic! The wife of our 13th President Millard Fillmore was Abigail Powers Fillmore! Powers! A kinsman! So now I present some scintillating tidbits on Abigail Fillmore…and I’m not just referencing the fact that she had siblings named Royal, Thankful, and Salmon!
Born to humble circumstances, daughter of a Baptist minister in New York State, she became a schoolteacher in public and private institutions. She taught until the birth of her first child, making her the first First lady to have salaried employment as a married woman! While her husband served in Congress, her love of learning seems to have found fulfillment in the cultural and intellectual pursuits of Washington, where she attended Congressional Sessions, concerts, lectures, galleries, theatres, and museums. Her contributions to the White House also point to her love of arts and books; much credit is given to her for expanding the White House library, and for her pianos and music room.
Developments of the era made her one of the first First Ladies to find herself positioned as a truly public figure, exceedingly uncommon for women in the mid-19th century. The death of 12th President Zachary Taylor in 1850 thrust her into First Ladyhood, and by 1853 you could purchase a full-length photograph postcard of her…
Bringing me to an unfortunate point about First Ladies and visibility. On one hand, they are uniquely positioned to influence public opinion and confront important issues. On the other hand, as often happens with women, visibility creates heightened emphasis on physical appearance. Indeed, her new position led Abigail to hire a maid for hairdressing and a seamstress. A woman who delighted in intellect, in advising her husband on politics, in hosting Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and Washington Irving at her home— she also felt that common female pressure to “dress the part.”
I admit that the costume historian in me is nerdily thrilled to learn she was the first Presidential spouse to wear clothes made by a fabulous new invention-the sewing machine!! But the feminist in me realizes that this necessity to be a fashion plate echoes down through American history, plaguing women married to politicians, and now female politicians themselves. As much as I loved my First Ladies Coloring Book, which did contain historical “blurbs,” I recognize in it our tendency to reduce First Ladies down to one simple question: what did she wear?
Oh, Reductionist History. So often we distill people down to dress-styles, portraits, quotes, lists of accomplishments and embarrassments and forget the complexity of individual human experience. Abigail may be a name on a historical list, but reading even a tiny bit about her reminded me of the fullness of personhood. There was a woman behind the daguerreotype print. She had a past, a personality, a family.
Perhaps this President’s Day, let’s fight our tendency to reduce—both historical AND modern figures. Would it change the way we view news if we remembered that behind every President, every First Lady, every politician in an age of constant visibility, is an entire life?
Some of them even have siblings named after fish species!
Edith Wilson: First Lady 1915-1921
In the seventh year of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, he suffered a debilitating stroke. But just how debilitating, we’ll never really know.
We know that his wife Edith dutifully cared for him as he remained confined to his bed for the last year and a half of his presidency. But was he able to speak or write or read? Mentally, was he able to contemplate complicated matters of state and make well-considered choices? We’ll never know, because for those last 18 months of his second term, no one saw or spoke to him except Edith.
Edith claimed that her husband’s doctor instructed her to guard his rest and his emotional wellbeing very carefully. She did that by having anyone who would meet with the president meet with her instead. She would then decide which matters were important enough for the President’s attention, and she would pass the information along to him personally, and privately. Later, she would emerge from the President’s room and relay his decisions to his staff. At least, that’s how she characterized whatever was happening behind those closed doors.
How this was allowed to happen is an interesting question. Partly it was due to the loyalty of the vice president, who refused to assume the role of Commander in Chief without the express written endorsement of both Woodrow and Edith. He stood by this position even as rumors poured from the White House that the president wasn’t governing at all – Edith was.
More interesting to me than the political aspects is this question: What in the world was Edith thinking? Why does an ordinary person just suddenly and unconstitutionally assume the full powers of the presidency of the United States?
Her background up to that point doesn’t suggest that she had a ruthless ambition for power. Did she fear the people’s prejudice against the disabled would ruin her husband’s lasting reputation if he were to give up the presidency? Did she not trust the vice president to carry on her husband’s campaign to establish the League of Nations, the project that was most dear to the President’s heart?
Or perhaps, did Wilson himself ask her to represent him? Is it possible that he was in his right mind, that he was making his own decisions, and that he just didn’t want to be seen in a severely disabled state?
Then again, did Edith just see an opportunity for power and seize it?
Whether it was in loving service to her husband or in selfish pursuit of her own gain, she put the two of them above the Constitution. That took guts… and a pretty ambivalent view towards just governance. We’re not likely to ever know what went on between Woodrow and Edith. But today, when historians call her “America’s first woman president,” they’re only half joking.