Southern First Ladies
Culture and Place in White House History
Edited by Katherine A. S. Sibley
Southern First Ladies explores the ways in which geographical and cultural backgrounds molded a group of influential first ladies. The contributors to this volume use the lens of “Southernness” to define and better understand the cultural attributes, characteristics, actions, and activism of seventeen first ladies from Martha Washington to Laura Bush.
The first ladies defined in this volume as Southern were either all born in the South—specifically, the former states of the Confederacy or their slaveholding neighbors like Missouri—or else lived in those states for a significant portion of their adult lives (women like Julia Tyler, Hillary Clinton, and Barbara Bush).
“This unique study encourages all of us to examine the influence of place in the evolution of the role of first lady. With varying degrees of ‘Southernness,’ the women included in this volume provide wonderful examples of the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle impact of locality on national institutions.”
—Mary C. Brennan, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Texas State University, and author of Pat Nixon: Embattled First Lady
“Katherine Sibley has put together a masterful collection of essays on Southern first ladies, spanning Martha Washington to Laura Bush. The contributors provide insightful scholarly analysis on the cultural backgrounds and ‘Southernness’ of these influential women and how they shaped gender roles within the United States. This book is an excellent addition to the ever-growing literature on the influence and symbolism of first ladies.”
—Lori Cox Han, professor of political science, Chapman University, and author of Advising Nixon: The White House Memos of Patrick J. Buchanan
“First ladies have often grappled with walking the fine line between traditional social, cultural, and political assumptions regarding the ‘proper’ role of their office and their own desire to pursue an activist agenda aimed at furthering their own interests and those of their husbands’. One would expect that presidential wives who were born or raised in the South would adhere most strongly to the traditionalist mindset. Yet as the contributors to this fascinating volume demonstrate, it was that very Southern upbringing that inspired these women to become the activist first ladies they were.”
—Scott Kaufman, author of Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party: A Political Biography of Gerald R. Ford
“Southern First Ladies: Culture and Place in White House History looks at how the American South has shaped the women of the White House, and, by extension, the presidency and nation. The study offers a novel way to examine first ladies through the lens of the intriguing and ever-changing Southern way of life. The themes interwoven throughout the chapters include slavery, civil rights, hospitality, gentility, etiquette, and women’s changing roles; all are sure to fascinate the reader. The book is well researched, richly detailed, and elegantly written. Southern First Ladies is a welcome addition to the growing scholarship on presidents’ wives.”
—Jill Abraham Hummer, author of First Ladies and American Women: In Politics and at HomeSee fewer reviews...
Southern climes indelibly shaped these women and, in turn, a number of enduring White House traditions. Along with the standards of proper behavior and ceremonial customs and hospitality demanded by notions of Southern white womanhood, some of which they successfully resisted or subverted, early first ladies including Martha Washington, Dolley Madison, Julia Tyler, and Sarah Polk were also shaped by racially based societal and cultural constraints typical of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some of which have persisted to the present day.
The first nine women in this volume, from Martha Washington to Julia Grant, all enslaved others during their lives, inside or outside the White House. Among the seven first ladies in the book’s last section, Ellen Wilson, for example, was profoundly influenced by the reformist ethos of the Progressive Era and set an example for activism that five of her Southern successors—Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush—all emulated. By contrast, Ellen’s immediate successor in the White House, Edith Wilson, enthusiastically celebrated the “Lost Cause.”
Southern First Ladies is the first volume to comprehensively emphasize the significance of Southernness and a Southern background in the history and work of first ladies, and Southernness’ long-standing influence for the development of this position in the White House as well as outside of it.