First Ladies and American Women

In Politics and at Home

Jill Abraham Hummer

Unelected, but expected to act as befits her “office,” the first lady has what Pat Nixon called “the hardest unpaid job in the world.” Michelle Obama championed military families with the program Joining Forces. Four decades earlier Pat Nixon traveled to Africa as the nation’s official representative. And nearly four decades before that, Lou Hoover took to the airwaves to solicit women's help in unemployment relief. Each first lady has, in her way, been intimately linked with the roles, rights, and responsibilities of American women. Pursuing this connection, First Ladies and American Women reveals how each first lady from Lou Henry Hoover to Michelle Obama has reflected and responded to trends that marked and unified her time.

Jill Abraham Hummer divides her narrative into three distinct epochs. In the first, stretching from Lou Hoover to Jacqueline Kennedy, we see the advent of women's involvement in politics following women’s suffrage, as well as pressures on family stability during depression, war, and postwar uncertainty. Next comes the second wave of the feminist movement, from Lady Bird Johnson’s tenure through Rosalyn Carter’s, when equality and the politics of the personal issues prevailed. And finally we enter the charged political and partisan environment over women’s rights and the politics of motherhood in the wake of the conservative backlash against feminism after 1980, from Nancy Reagan to Michelle Obama.

First Ladies and American Women looks at the various public activities of the First Ladies—the breadth of which may surprise the reader—within the construct of the post-suffrage Women’s Movement. Placing the stories of the First Ladies within the context of Second and Third Wave Feminism is a unique approach to East Wing Studies; an approach that is way overdue. Abraham Hummer augments this structure with clear, crisp writing, and with an eye for the perfect anecdote. A welcome addition to the growing scholarship on the impact of our First Ladies, as well as a fascinating read.”

—John Robert Greene, author of Betty Ford: Candor and Courage in the White House

First Ladies and American Women: In Politics and At Home provides a well-written, thoughtful, and engaging examination of the modern first ladies as political actors in the public and the private spheres. Richly contextualized and relying almost exclusively on documents drawn from the presidential archives, this volume reveals the political calculations and personal judgments that have shaped first ladies’ actions as members of presidential administrations, as wives of the presidents, and as representatives of American women. First Ladies and American Women presents strong and sometimes controversial arguments that are certain to inform and challenge the reader.”

—MaryAnne Borrelli, author of The Politics of the President’s Wife

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Throughout, Hummer explores how background, personality, ambitions, and her relationship to the president shaped each first lady's response to women in society and to the broader political context in which each administration functioned—and how, in turn, these singular responses reflect the changing role of women in American society over nearly a century.

About the Author

Jill Abraham Hummer is associate professor of political science at Wilson College, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Political Science Education, White House Studies, Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court, The Hill newspaper, and other publications.