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America's First Ladies: An Enduring Vision

March 7, 2012 by Anita B. McBride

The first lady of the United States is a national role model for women and girls of all ages.  She exemplifies courage, passion and leadership through her many roles as a mother, teacher and diplomat for the United States. Throughout our history, this exclusive women’s club has been at the forefront of social change, working to improve rights for women around the world, or advocating for healthy lifestyles in the U.S. They have been tasked with balancing their public lives and their private lives. As Pat Nixon once said, “being first lady is the hardest unpaid job in the world.”

On March 5, 2012 presidential historians, Pulitzer-prize winning authors, former White House photographers, former White House social secretaries, former President George W. Bush and the first ladies themselves – Mrs. Barbara Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush will take the stage to discuss the experiences and legacies of the first lady of the United States. This is one of the few jobs that does not require an application or an interview, and indeed there is no job description, as every first lady writes her own. John Heubusch, the Executive Director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, came up with a fictional “want ad” to recruit a first lady of the United States. It’s meant to be humorous but some of the criteria he lists sums up the job pretty well:

Demonstrated perfection as a human being - required. Willingness to undergo scrutiny as the most famous woman on the planet 24/7 in all areas from fashion to positions on peace in the Middle East. Superhuman multitasking a must. Background in planning of State Dinners, hosting of international summits on foreign soil, standing-in for weekly national radio addresses, defense of spouse’s public positions on over 1,000 issues, and flawless media performances before mobs of cynical reporters preferred. 

After reading the full description, you have to ask yourself, “Could I do it?” The role of the American First Lady is essential in American politics, domestic policy, and global diplomacy yet their impact on the nation’s well-being and the legacies they’ve left behind are often overlooked. An inaugural conference, “Legacies of America’s First Ladies” took place at American University in Washington, DC in March 2011. We invited historians who studied First Ladies, authors who wrote about them, journalists who traveled with and covered them, and staff who worked with them to develop their platforms.  Together we brought America’s first ladies to life.  Due to the success of this conference and a suggestion from the Archivist of the United States, we are taking the show on the road to the presidential libraries.  Texas was the first stop – the only state home to three presidential libraries and two living first ladies. The series began on November 15, 2011 at the George Bush Library at Texas A&M in College Station, the second will be held on March 5, 2012 at the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and the third will take place in November 2012 at the LBJ Library in Austin in conjunction with celebrations for Lady Bird Johnson’s centennial birthday. The role of the First Lady is complicated, with no definition, no official status, nor any statutory authority – but it has plenty of pressure and increasingly greater expectation. She occupies a unique position of influence and is arguably the only advisor to the President that won’t be fired from her job! This post was written by Anita McBride, Senior Advisor of the George W. Bush Institute.  [gallery]