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The first ladies club

The unpaid public servants who shape history

Created date

May 10th, 2017
(From left) Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush, and Rosalynn Carter during the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in 2013.

(From left) Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush, and Rosalynn Carter during the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in 2013.

Help wanted: Manage office with an annual budget of $1.5 million and a staff of 25-40 people; oversee international social events; represent the official interests of the U.S.; preside over turkey pardons, Christmas tree lightings, and Easter egg rolls; direct events staff with regard to style and presentation of menus, floral design, and social correspondence. Applicant should have a worthwhile cause such as increasing literacy or fighting childhood obesity to promote. 

Note: Job will require an extensive wardrobe, and your appearance will be scrutinized by people around the globe. 

Salary: None.

It’s not easy being the first lady. Lady Bird Johnson summed it up perfectly when she said, “The first lady is, and always has been, an unpaid public servant elected by one person—her husband.”

Melania Trump

The nation’s newest first lady is Slovenian-born former model Melania Trump. It’s still early in her husband’s term, but already this first lady has demonstrated that she will do things her own way.

When, instead of moving immediately into the White House with her husband, Melania Trump decided to remain in New York City, she left the most demanding unpaid public position in the country vacant. Her absence from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue brought to light just how significant the first lady’s duties are. 

The news media worried about the fate of the annual White House Easter egg roll. Who would handle the Governor’s Ball in March? And what about White House tours? While the first lady doesn’t personally oversee the tours, her staff does. 

Addressing the void, Mrs. Trump issued this statement. “I am putting together a professional and highly experienced team, which will take time to do properly. I am excited to be organizing and bringing together such a dynamic and forward-thinking group of individuals who will work together to make our country better for everyone.”

In February, Mrs. Trump hired Lindsay Reynolds to be her chief of staff. Reynolds wasted no time assuring the public that resuming the tours was one of her priorities. “I am working to ensure that the White House Visitors Office is fully staffed and operational and ready to accept tour requests for the public in the coming weeks after a traditional temporary closure during the transition period,” said Reynolds in the press release announcing her new position.

Mrs. Trump says she will move into the White House this summer, once their son Barron Trump is finished with school. When she gets there, she will undoubtedly redefine the role to fit with her own personal style and agenda, just as each of her predecessors did. 

An elite club

Kate Anderson Brower details the elite club of first ladies in First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies (Harper Paperbacks, 2017). A group biography of first ladies, from Jacqueline Kennedy through Michelle Obama (with an afterward about Melania Trump in the paperback edition), the book examines the women and their complex relationships with one another.

With the exception of Laura Bush, who had some insight on how to be first lady from her mother-in-law Barbara, no first lady arrives at the White House knowing how to do the job. They do their best to support their husbands while sometimes inadvertently stepping into a quagmire of bad publicity. 

For example, shortly after moving into the White House, Nancy Reagan spent $200,000 for a new set of White House china. Even though the money was raised from private donations, public outcry was loud and strong. The press painted Mrs. Reagan as “imperial” with some calling her “Queen Nancy.” 

Years later while she was planning a state dinner, Hillary Clinton had to choose the place settings and realized that Mrs. Reagan’s china was the only complete set the White House owned. Mrs. Reagan’s purchase had nothing to do with extravagance. It was a necessity. 

A sisterhood 

The book offers fascinating accounts of both the warm friendships and the frosty rivalries between first ladies. 

For example, Anderson Brower describes the relationship between Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush as “caustic.” On the other hand, Mrs. Reagan got along well with Jackie Kennedy.

More recently, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton were never close, but Mrs. Obama has developed a friendship with Laura Bush.  


Regardless of their politics or whether they were close or not, first ladies feel tremendous empathy for each other. One of the most touching examples of this is a story about Pat Nixon and Jackie Kennedy. 

Although their husbands had been political rivals, when it was time to unveil the Kennedys’ official portraits in the White House in 1971, all that was forgotten.   

Up until then, Mrs. Kennedy had refused invitations to the White House, saying it would be too painful to return. Recognizing Jackie’s sensitivity, Pat Nixon cleverly arranged for Mrs. Kennedy and her children to visit the White House in complete secrecy. 

The entire building was on lockdown. Only four staffers were told of the visit and they were sworn to secrecy. 

Mrs. Kennedy and her children enjoyed a special afternoon, touring the home they had once lived in and they did it privately, thanks to Mrs. Nixon. 

This is just one example of why, long after they have left the White House, former first ladies retain the love and admiration of the American people.

First ladies quiz

1. Melania Trump is the second foreign-born first lady. Who was the first? 

2. When her husband suffered a debilitating stroke in office, she ran the Executive Branch.

3. She was a teacher and her husband was her student.

4. She danced with Martha Graham’s troupe.

5. Like Melania Trump, she did not move to Washington, D.C., with her husband. 

6. She was an advocate for beautifying the nation’s cities and highways.

7. She worked as her husband’s White House secretary.

8. She was the nation’s longest-serving first lady.

9. She was an actress, appearing both on Broadway and in Hollywood films.

10. She planted the first cherry blossom tree on the bank of Washington, D.C.’s tidal basin. 

Answers: 1. Louisa Adams. 2. Edith Wilson. 3. Abigail Fillmore. 4. Betty Ford. 5. Anna Harrison. 6. Lady Bird Johnson. 7. Bess Truman. 8. Eleanor Roosevelt. 9. Nancy Reagan. 10. Helen Taft.