First Lady Florence Harding
Behind the Tragedy and Controversy
Katherine A. S. Sibley
Florence Kling Harding has come down through history as one of our most scorned first ladies. Victimized by caricatures and branded a shrew, she stands at the bottom of historians' polls, her reputation tarnished by her husband's scandals despite their joint popularity while in office. These depictions, argues Katherine Sibley, have prevented us today from seeing how innovative a first lady Florence Harding really was.
This new look at Mrs. Harding restores humanity to an oft-maligned figure by examining her progressive causes, her celebrity, and her role in her husband's work. For if Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with shattering the first lady's ceremonial mold, it was Florence Harding who made the first cracks.
“A first-rate biography . . . For those interested in the complex politics of the 1920s or the changing nature of the status of the first lady, Sibley’s biography offers insight into a complicated and interesting life.”
—Presidential Studies Quarterly
“Harding’s life, as tragic and controversial as it may have been, has finally received the serious attention that it deserves thanks to Katherine Sibley.”
—Michigan Historical ReviewSee all reviews...
“Sibley’s absorbing and valuable study portrays Florence Kling Harding as the prototype for modern American first ladies. Florence, Sibley argues, was the engine that powered Warren Harding’s commercial and political successes. . . . To Sibley, [Florence Harding’s] characteristics were indexes of feminism and individuality: Mrs. Harding was successful at business, shrewd politically, and, as first lady in the White House, a media trailblazer at just the right time, when Americans, thanks to the emergence of movies and radio, were starting to measure politicians as much for celebrity as for public policy. . . . [This book is] . . . hard to put down. Considering that [it deals] with a presidency that ended 86 years ago Aug. 2, that's saying a lot.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer (September 7, 2009)
“A terrific biography of an important first lady who has never been given the recognition she truly deserves. Sibley not only corrects the historical record about the Harding presidency while revealing the life of a great lady, but also provides a positively fascinating read. No future first lady, or anyone interested in presidential history, should ignore this work.”
—John W. Dean, former Nixon White House counsel and author of Warren G. Harding
“Sibley’s lively and thoughtful book draws on dozens of contemporary accounts to bring Florence Harding to life. The gallant ‘Duchess’ was an immensely popular woman whose efforts to expand the visibility of the White House paved the way for Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy. ”
—Kristie Miller, author of Isabella Greenway: An Enterprising WomanSee fewer reviews...
Sibley's is the first book to offer a full treatment of Florence as first lady rather than as mere supporting actress in the Harding administration. Never shying from publicity, she made herself more available to the press than did her predecessors and opened the White House up to the public. And she took such a pioneering role in Warren Harding's campaign and presidency that many thought she outdid her husband as a politician.
Turning to primary sources that others have overlooked, Sibley challenges the clichs about Florence's time in the national spotlight. She describes how Mrs. Harding supported racial equality, lobbied for better treatment for veterans and female prisoners, and maintained a lifelong interest in preventing animal cruelty. As adviser to her husband, she assisted with his speechwriting and consulted with the cabinet; she was also the first first lady to deliver spontaneous speeches while traveling with the president.
At a personal level, Sibley examines in detail how Mrs. Harding responded to her husband's death, assessing why this tragedy struck Americans with such force even as national empathy proved so fleeting. She also offers a more nuanced description of the president's philandering, viewing Nan Britton's claims with skepticism while noting the effects on Florence of his dalliance with Carrie Phillips.
Florence Harding bequeathed an activist legacy, and it is due to her example that aspiring presidential wives are expected to campaign with their husbands and be accessible to public and press. Florence Harding truly set the stage for those to follow; this book delivers the full and fair portrait that has long been her due.