first ladies

Nerding out about America’s First Ladies

When nightmares plague me about college, they usually involve some fearsome failure of mine to alphabetize my bibliographic entries. (I am still in rehabilitation from serial citation offenses. I hope we can still be friends.) I wake from those dreams drenched in sweat and pleading for grading mercies from a phantom professor.

When I daydream about college, I am usually transported to a beach blanket someone had laid out in order for us to “study for finals” where I remember promptly studying the back of my eyelids for a few hours. It is rare that I can recall anything of substance from my classes; the memory of what it was that I majored in is all but dissolving into a hazy solution of all the Mountain Dew and cheap beer I drank (and inexplicably somehow never gained weight).

Lou Henry Hoover was a total shero, by the way.

There was one class, though, from which I derived something memorable, a pocket full of trivia and a new set of lenses for viewing women in history. I think we all have that class, no? Or that teacher or job that helps us to adjust the prescription to rightly view our privilege or prejudice? I regret that students can no longer take America’s First Ladies from the great Dr. Treckel who wisely retired before the students who refused to alphabetize their bibliographies forced her into an early grave.

The course covered the lives and passions of the then forty women whose important causes and presidential pillow talk shaped our nation. My classmates and I were also a bunch of women, most of us still fighting teenage acne and learning how to correctly pronounce “segue” (NOT SEGGGG, turns out) whenever we wanted to pivot from a salient point.

It’s a job, being a First Lady, we learned over and over throughout the course, as was evident in every account from Abigail Adams to Lady Bird Johnson, from Mamie Eisenhower to Hillary Clinton. The basic thrust of the class was basically the same premise of “Hamilton” without Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rhymes: women matter, women endure, women are changemakers even if they don’t always get the limelight or the credit. Instead, history has been hard on First Ladies, scrutinizing what they wore, how they coiffed their hair, and occasionally taking issue with their issues. So the verbiage of Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign wasn’t the finest moment in public health. There are worse messages to come out of the 80s, than “Just Say No,” people. Clearly the elastic chokehold from wearing double socks and pegging our pants has blocked our remembrance of how bad people with AIDS were treated, how ineffective the stranger danger caution has been, how problematic the character of Long Duk Dong is in “Sixteen Candles.” The mix of aerosol hairspray and second hand smoke must have been killing off the rest of the brain cells the pegged pants didn’t quite get.

Just say no to trashing First Ladies. We should listen more to them rather than examining the hem of their pantsuits and the hue of their lipsticks. They have been the eyes and ears of a nation in ways that their husbands could not be. Someday soon, I’m hoping we’ll get to call a woman President and her husband a First Gentleman. (Or maybe she’ll be married to a woman. Hurrah! More women in the West Wing!)

President Obama lovingly paid tribute to the job for which his wife Michelle Obama wasn’t elected but fully accepted, “You took on a role you didn’t ask for, and you made it your own–with grace and with grit and style and good humor. You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody….you have made me proud and you have made the country proud.” Everyone got misty-eyed including Sasha who was supposedly at home studying for her exam the next day but–c’mon. She just didn’t want to do the ugly cry on national television and I cannot blame her.

We didn’t get to build an altar to Michelle Obama when I took Dr. Treckel’s class because we were only up to the Clinton years when I started college in the last millennium. Oh but what a time it was to be alive and studying First Ladies when Monica Lewinsky was the name of a soap opera that unfolded with more salaciousness each day: a blue dress and a cigar and impeachment, oh my! Hillary Clinton was a resoundingly sympathetic character in America at the time, having to live with that dog Bill when she was eminently qualified to do a better job than he. The humanity and the ignominy of those who worked and dwelt in the White House were all a part of our learning lab.

Just a couple years later, I took the semester off to intern in DC, just a couple of blocks from the White House as it was ushering in a new administration. I still think it’s hilarious that Clinton’s staff removed all the “W” keys from the keyboards as they simultaneously handed the proverbial White House keys over to the George W. Bush administration. I like pranks where nobody gets hurt and people are just inconvenienced enough to get a little bothered under their starched collars. I love a good public servant who can take a joke, but it never seemed as though the leading ladies of the White House were given any grace, any margin for error. If they had a bad hair day or weren’t hyper aware of optics at all times, they were swimming in scandal. America’s First Ladies class just served to reinforce how it’s always been a damn hard business being a woman in the United States, especially during the years when dying in childbirth was common and grocery delivery was uncommon. Being married to the President of the Free World? No plum assignment, but marginally better now than it used to be when Abigail Adams had to write to remind her husband to remember the ladies. And how they exist and don’t like being their husband’s property and stuff.

When I toured the White House with a bunch of other interns, we got a peak of Laura Bush taking Barney the First Dog for his evening constitutional. We even got to pet him. Laura was wearing casual slacks and a blouse and it was such a lovely sight to see her letting her hair hang down, as it were. I wondered if she and her girls ever did cartwheels and ran barefoot in the Rose Kennedy rose garden just because they could.

During my internship semester, I also took a journalism class in which Bob McNeely, the official photographer of the Clinton administration was invited to be a guest speaker. His stories were fascinating but one still sticks with me since it was so surprisingly editorial. He described a wonderful tableau of the White House preparations for Christmas. He recalled Hillary sweeping through one of the rooms and noticing a particular tree with an ornament just askew. She paused and straightened it before proceeding off to other, more pressing matters. The way I remember McNeely describing it was as though he had just witnessed someone yanking a bottle out of a baby’s mouth. He recalled that this was Hillary’s modus operandi–that this sort of rectifying the work of others perfectly encapsulated her. She may not have decorated the tree herself, but she knew the way it was supposed to look.

I hate to toss a bad pun in here to criticize a photographer but I think Mr. McNeely may have been short-sighted. The condemnation seemed unfair, especially given Hillary’s storied experience as a dynamite litigator. I’m sure her attention to detail was legendary. Further, that Hillary had to worry about optics during her tour of duty in the White House is an understatement. She was fighting for her family while America sat back and popped popcorn and waited for the trainwreck. So she wanted the glitterball ornament to sit a bit more upright. Her husband was being impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice. But ol’ Hill just couldn’t cope with the wonky partridge in the pear tree. Burn her at the stake why don’t you!

In addition to the fairly sexist description of OrnamentGate, McNeely’s story is also memorable to me as it was one of the first times I got to see pictures of the White House in all its holiday splendor. It seemed that the decking of the White House halls was a First Ladies detail since before electricity’s invention. They appear to have embraced the holiday decorator role with relish. Betty Ford went with a folksy craft theme for her Christmas tree. Barbara Bush carried a family literacy motif through her tree and I do not know how you can get credit for activism and interior decorating at the same time on the same plant but Babs pwned it.

I had not known until McNeely, though, that the public had often been invited to visit the White House and judge its ornament placement for itself. Teddy and Edith Roosevelt, for example, hosted a Christmas carnival and invited 500 children. Can you imagine a time where the President invited 500 kids who probably weren’t entitled punks and who didn’t try to steal the soundbar and actually lost their minds at the presentation of…wait for it…ice cream shaped like Santa Claus? What was it even like when a major event occurred for which there wasn’t an official hashtag nor any helicopter parents to humblebrag their Santa-shaped ice creams on their InstaStories? It all must have been so quaint. Please believe this does not in any way diminish my burning desire to receive an invite to a big holiday open house at Casa Blanca so I can humblebrag it on my InstaStories.

My friend Rory, on the other hand. He’s always got the hottest tickets in town. I will not begrudge him the time he got invited by the Obamas to their Christmas open house. Rory is a mega-talented Broadway star and non-profiteer and still answers my text messages. I’ve known him since high school when he starred in every high school musical and I was the sweaty girl behind the concession stand eating selling the popcorn during intermission. He charms the pants off of everyone he meets with his self-deprecating humor and I’m confident he pretty much single-handedly overturned the Defense of Marriage Act so that he could marry his boyfriend Gerald. I’ve only ever overturned a jello mold when it wasn’t yet firm so Rory impresses me.

Rory also impressed the Obamas enough to get an invite to their holiday shindig in 2014. Rory posted pictures of himself on Facebook ambling around the many White House rooms, festooned with ribbons and holly. He captioned the photo of himself in the Lincoln Room, “Me at the buffet by myself. A common sight. Abe Lincoln isn’t usually there though.” See? Impossibly charming, that Rory.

Since the changing of the guards at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, though, I’ve not been as keen to receive an invite to any function within its gates. I doubt Rory has either.

Oh, but my interest was surely piqued when the official YouTube of the White House released its “Christmas Decorations at the White House,” video, a title that is only befitting under this Trump administration that sees your inclusive Holiday Decor and raises you a We will Christmas if We Want to Here. Within the first 12 seconds of the video, First Lady Melania Trump is seen ::gasp:: pulling a Hillary and examining one of the ornaments on a tree that she presumably did not decorate herself. Where are the First Lady decorating police? We’ve found another offender! High crimes and misdemeanors!

But by far, the very best part of the video is when the film crew, wanting to really bring home the message that Melania had her hands alllllll over this decorating business, has dragged a big-ass wreath into some back cabinet office and Melania is seen rearranging the fronds of said wreath with a staff member looking on approvingly. See Melania the Model using her hands! See the staff member, possibly Latina, helping her! Look at Santa’s styley elves at work!

Hold on one second. Literally, please press pause when the video reaches 27 seconds. Because within this scene is some kindly woman in the background sitting at her cubicle just trying to eat her pear. She probably just broke up with her boyfriend in the Secret Service and doesn’t want to run into him in the White House cafeteria. So she’s trying to have a nice desk lunch except the campaign to show Melania Loves Mexicans (unlike her husband whose affection seems restricted to Mexican food) has hijacked the office. But by jove, she’s not moving! Surely they’ll be done soon and she can go back to her power lunch in peace.

I know I told you that the First Ladies class helped me to adjust my historical focus on women in the White House and this is perhaps the greatest exhibit A I could offer you. Women are contending for their rightful spots in every corner office in the country, but they continue to operate behind the scenes of history unfolding. Most of the time, we should recognize their efforts and call them into the spotlight for their meaningful contributions.

And other times, we should let them eat their pear. In peace. The Christmas wreath already has a partridge. We don’t need a pear tree, too. And if we do, you can bet a First Lady will find one.

About The Author


kendratheadverb

Kendraspondence is the personal mischief of Kendra Stanton Lee.
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