Autorka: Johana Kudrnová (Institut mezinárodních studií FSV UK)


The role of the First Lady is not defined in the Constitution and its nature has always been contextual.There is no objective framework according to which we could evaluate theindividual performances of the First Ladies. Many of the First Ladies spent their years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue almost unnoticed by the U.S. public, a lot of them carried out only the fundamental duties of the First Lady, but some of them did leave a significant mark in history.


Relying on published monographs, memoirs, scholarly studies and newspaper articles, this essay will argue that two of the most influential First Ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy raised the profile of the presidential spouse through developing their own social and political causes, which in result helped to enforce goals of their husbands’ administrations. In other words, the essay asks a general question what is the character of cooperation between presidential couple, which best interacts in public and in the same time serves as a useful political tool. The thesis of the essay assumes that Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Kennedy exceeded all of the Modern First Ladies[1] in creating their own proud legacies without overshadowing accomplishments of their husbands[2].

The first part of the essay assesses importance of presidential marriages in general. The following part focuses on the performances of Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy. The main emphasis within the scope of “performance” is on practices of their well-balanced marriages and their publicly seen outcomes. Besides, paper will discuss their distinctive approaches towards the role of the First Lady, and fields of their major interest.

The second part of the work comprises of profiles of another eight First Ladies. The paper will use the performances of Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy as model examples for assessing thework of Edith Wilson, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama. The performances of the presidential spouses will be divided into two categories according to their resemblance to either Eleanor Roosevelt’s Intellectual Model or Jacqueline Kennedy’s Charismatic Model.

Growing Importance of Presidential Marriages

Kati Marton in her book Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our Recent History describes private matters of presidential couples as vital for a full understanding of the particular presidency (Marton, p. 3). Nonetheless, this assumption proves to be wrong due to majority of presidential marriages, whose nature did not affect any of the administrations in past. Particularly, private matters of the 18th and the 19th century presidents are often not even covered by historians as they did not play a significant role in their professional lives. With the exception of Abigail Adams or Dolley Madison, we can hardly find any noticeable First Lady even though it was a time when several remarkable leaders assumed the presidency of the United States.

Thus, the paper avoids judging the First Ladies on the assertion that they possess the ability to substantially shape their husband’s legacies. They havecontributed to major initiatives of their time (as for example Eleanor Roosevelt did) (Gould, p. 437), they have often inspired the world (as indeed Jacqueline Kennedy did), they have changed the nation’s attitude to controversial topics (as for instance Betty Ford did, when she de-stigmatized breast cancer and alcohol addiction) (Marton, p. 204). Therefore, they can be cherished, loved, and admired, but they can’t rewrite their husband’s legacies.

Even though some of them proved to be far stronger players than their husbands (as was the case of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter or Ronald and Nancy Reagan) (Marton, p. 215-243; 244-273) or had tendencies to outperform them (e.g. Hillary Clinton) (Marton, p. 246), the outcomes of this imbalance were, unfortunately, always perceived as more negative than positive.

Thus, the essay argues that the importance of presidential marriage grows in time. Power inserted into the hands of the Modern First Lady is unprecedented compared to power possessed by the presidential spouses of the 18th and the 19th centuries. Therefore, the task is to find out what is the most effective grasp of this newly gained opportunity to be active in public issues.

Eleanor Roosevelt – One of the First Human Rights Ambassadors

Eleanor Roosevelt gained therespect of her nation soon after becoming First Lady in 1933 and this was true even after her death. She redefined the role of the president’s wife just as her husband redefined the role of the chief executive. It is important to note that they both accomplished this independently of one another.

Born in 1884 into the prominent family of the Roosevelts, Anna Eleanor Rooseveltwas expected to become a respectable, socially active[3]wife with little or moderate interest in public affairs. Nonetheless, her marriage with her cousin Franklin destined her for a different task. They had to endure many difficulties together, which included Franklin’s life-long adultery, and his affliction with polio. Yet together they guided the United States out of two of the greatest crises of the 20th century – the Great Depression and World War Two. Lack of personal fulfilment propelled their rise to the White House, where they could make use of their respectively impressive potentials.


Even though it is impossible to consider their marriage as conventional or happy in the traditional sense, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were nevertheless indispensable for each other. Eleanor Roosevelt’s unrelenting endeavours to get Roosevelt return to politics despite his illness contributed to his own conviction not to give up and helped him win the presidential election of 1932. FDR’s physical disability, which normally would be considered a serious obstacle for every politician, was easily compensated by Eleanor Roosevelt’s zeal to reform the country. Years before they acceded to the White House, she had been serving as FDR’s eyes and ears. “I learned to look into cooking pots. I’d tell him what was on the menu for the day,”commented Eleanor Roosevelt on her main tasks (Marton, p. 60). Even after the election, she continued in this effort. For example, during the first year of FDR’s presidency, she travelled forty thousand kilometres to provide her husband with an in-depth report about the progress of the New Deal programs (Marton, p. 70).

Surprisingly, before moving to the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt even contemplated getting a divorce (Gould, p. 434). The case was not dissatisfaction with her marriage, which had been functioning more or less only for appearances since the early 1920’s, but her fear of losing her own individual and increasingly powerful voice. She was nonetheless pushed to choose between her devotion to their shared goal, for which she and Franklin had worked for years, and her own independence. “If I wanted to be selfish, I could wish that he had not been elected,” she admitted to a close friend (Gould, p. 435). She deserved to be judged as Eleanor Roosevelt, and not as a voiceless spouse or a redecorator of the White House. Thankfully, she decided to stay in the marriage and use her inner strength to support numerous initiatives. Kati Marton highlights her moral compass[4], and this is what makes Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy even more admirable.

The new First Lady started to spread her ideas through weekly news conferences for women reporters (men were excluded, and as a result publishers were encouraged to hire more women). From 1935 she did so through her newspaper column titled “My Day” in various newspapers including Washington Daily News, Boston Globe and New York World-Telegram[5] (Beasley, p. 9). Even though at first she intended to focus only on social activities, political issues quickly became a central part of her contributions. Such media coverage helped her reach thousands of American households, and thereby decrease the distance between them and the executive office. Whether visiting coal miners, championing women rights, defending racially oppressed black Americans, aiding the unemployed, or helping her husband navigate the country through hard times, Eleanor Roosevelt became an inseparable part of FDR’s administration.

During the course of World War Two, Eleanor Roosevelt was not afraid of opposing her husband or to face open criticism of her convictions. The first news about the danger to Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe reached the United States in 1940. The First Lady began to lobby for an immediate rescue operation. Aware of the security problems connected to immigration, FDR considered this naive and very idealistic, and he refused to undertake any action (Marton, p.79). In this case it is possible to see the outlines of Eleanor Roosevelt’s impulse, which could have theoretically changed the course of the Holocaust.

This episode illustrates limits of her power. FDR never allowed his spouse to interfere into the presidential policy in spheres in which they disagreed. Lack of skill in this area caused numerous problems in presidential partnerships later on (etc. in marriages of Fords, Carters, Reagans or Clintons, which will be discussed in the second part of the essay).

In a similar manner, Eleanor Roosevelt’s statements, in which she compared American racism with Fascism stirred a lot of attention (Gould, p. 438). No matter how controversial this was almost eighty years after the end of the Civil War and in the light of recently revealed Nazi atrocities, at the time Eleanor Roosevelt’s role was to keep burning problems of the U.S. on the agenda.

She remained publicly active even after the death of her late husband. President Harry Truman appointed her to the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations, where she oversaw the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Gould, p. 445). Besides Eleanor Roosevelt was a proud member of the labour union. The influence of this organization is reflected in her words calling for welfare state. “We can’t just talk. We have got to act… And we must see improvement for the masses of people, not for the little group on top.” (O’Farrell). This act, among many other things, indeed crowned her lifetime effort to promote the fundamental American values of democracy, equality, and justice.

Legacy of the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is remarkable thanks to the numerous successful initiatives she supported throughout her life. She tirelessly defended rights of discriminated groups including Afro-Americans, women, and blue-collar workers. Well-balanced marital alliance of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt contributed to creation of the United States as we perceive it in the 21st century.

Jacqueline Kennedy – Guinevere of Camelot

When Jacqueline Kennedy announced that“she was not going to go down in the coal mines, like Mrs. Roosevelt” (Marton, p. 114), it seemed to be a rash impertinence undermining the position of America’s so far most popular First Lady. Even though this quote exemplifies the differences in the styles of Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy, it should not be forgotten that they mutually appreciate and respected each other. In hindsight, they are not perceived as opposites, but as individual entities using different tools to achieve the same purpose. While Eleanor Roosevelt relied on her intellect, Jacqueline Kennedy used her charisma and charm.

Warm correspondence between the former and the new First Lady began already before Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, and it lasted until Eleanor Roosevelt’s death two years later. In her letter from 1 December 1960, Mrs. Roosevelt provided Jacqueline Kennedy with almost maternal advice concerning the traps awaiting her in the White House. “I know well that there will be difficulties in store for you in this White House life but perhaps also you will find some compensations. Most things are made easier, though I think the whole life is rather difficult for both the children and their parents in the ‘fish bowl’ that lies before you” (Schlup, p. 257).Mrs. Roosevelt advice related to the lack of privacy she had encountered during the years in the White House. She anticipated that media pressure had even grew since years when she occupied the executive mansion. Besides, it was likely that tabloid press would pay more attention to the young couple of Kennedys than to Roosevelts, who were in their fifties when entering the White House in 1933.


Although neither of the two could know how prophetic these words would be, both Eleanor and Jacqueline decided to accept the risks of living in the executive mansion before even stepping inside. Their own ambitions led them to marry men who headed straight to Congress and after that to the White House. Neither FDR nor JFK became presidents by accident. They were raised, groomed, and expected to take charge of the nation. Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Bouvier (maiden name of Mrs. Kennedy) had been fully aware of this fact and they were resolved not just to bear the burden of their husbands’ office with them, but to enjoy all the associated benefits as well (Marton, p. 109).

The charismatic power radiating from John and Jacqueline Kennedys was the first prerequisite for a firm grasp of foreign policy, the mastery of which was a key to their success. A self-awareness of the ability to manipulate the public was the second premise. Therefore, the pre-election TV interview’s shy woman with a soft Locust Valley accent[6] was soon transformed into a self-confident but still quiet woman in most of Jacqueline Kennedy’s public appearances. Moreover, this woman became the secret weapon of her husband’s diplomacy.

Before focusing on her contribution in politics, Mrs. Kennedy’s often underestimated qualities of art connoisseur, aesthete and arbiter of taste are worth mentioning. She was probably the first presidential spouse who presented American culture to the world. Through her famous redecoration of the White House, her numerous receptions carefully designed to bring together the most interesting and gifted people of the time, and through her inspiring fashion style, Jacqueline Kennedy and her family became the symbol of an innocent happiness.

Whether the carefully created picture was false or not is a different question. What matters is that the illusion of “Camelot” in early 1960s served its purpose. The Kennedies’ fairy tale symbolized the post-war revival and faith in a better future for America as ‘the leader of the free world’.

Jacqueline Kennedy’s fluency in French and Spanish proved to be one of JFK’s greatest assets when gaining the votes of minorities on the home front (Harding, p. 27) or when negotiating with politicians around the world. However, this was only one of the many means by which she was able to support her husband’s endeavours. In early months of 1961 the Kennedys were to visit France and more importantly Austria where the president was supposed to meet his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev. Before leaving Paris, John F. Kennedy memorably paid tribute to his wife when saying: “I’m the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris”. It is worth taking a closer look at what stood behind the mentioned famous quote.

John Kennedy expressed surprise that the Parisians chanted ”Vive Jacqui!” whenever they spotted his spouse, but also the amazement of Charles de Gaulle and later of Khrushchev as well (Marton, p. 117). It is believed that Jacqueline Kennedy’s cultivated manners and her personal charm melted reserved attitudes and dispelled suspicions about her husband. After encountering her, Charles de Gaule admitted to John that “he has now more confidence in the United States” (Sferrazza, p. 42). Although the trip to Vienna did not bring the much desired improvement in the relations with the Soviet Union, Jacqueline Kennedy indeed caught the attention of the otherwise reserved Khrushchev. She received gifts from the leader of America’s greatest enemy long after coming back from Europe (Sferrazza, p. 43). Thus, when considering the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which took place just a few months later, this additional aspect of the Kennedy-Khrushchev personal relationship should be taken into account. Jacqueline Kennedy charismatic diplomacy could contribute to the peace solution of the crisis.


Early successes were soon followed by new tasks during which Jacqueline Kennedy often crossed boundaries of what had been expected from the American First Lady. She became the first presidential spouse to be received by the pope in the Vatican and the first to be honoured by meeting the president of a European nation (Italian president Giovanni Gronchi) without the presence of her husband (Sferrazza, p. 45). After leaving Europe, Jacqueline Kennedy headed to India, where she started to build a strong friendship with Prime Minister Nehru and his family (Marton, p. 117). In other words, Mrs. Kennedy had obviously no problems building relationships with people across nationalities, ideologies, and religions.

The last task of the most famous First Lady was also the hardest one. She had to say goodbye to her husband, the president of the United States, in front of the whole world. Her brave performance during the days following the tragic events in Dallas concluded Kennedy’s one thousand days as the head of the nation. Jacqueline Kennedy played the role of ideal wife until the very last moment. Her professional behaviour often resembled the behaviour of a queen, who was groomed to live properly, reign properly, and to mourn properly for her husband, the king of the nation. Nothing she did in the last days was random. Her last letter sent from the White House was addressed to Nikita Khrushchev. When expressing her deepest faith in “big men” securing world peace, she was speaking not just on behalf of her husband, but also of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the whole world (Marton, p. 134). Time showed that the epitaph on JFK’s tomb “Don’t let it to be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot” belongs to both John and Jacqueline Kennedys.

Two Models of the First Lady’s Performance

The second part of the essay discusses two models of the First Lady’s performance. It distinguishes between Eleanor Roosevelt’s Intellectual Model and Jacqueline Kennedy’s Charismatic Model.

Intellectual model follows the tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt’s performance in public affairs particularly during years spent as the First Lady in 1930’s and 1940’s. Similarly Charismatic model relies on performance of Jacqueline Kennedy in early 1960’s. Accomplishments of the other First Ladies will be assessed according to highly successful performances of Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Kennedy as described in previous chapters. One by one, nine First Ladies – Edith Wilson, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama will be put into these two categories.

Examining the Modern First Ladies, I intentionally do not discuss Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, and Laura Bush, as their roles were characterized by a traditional neutral approach which was manifested itself more in their relationships with their husbands rather than with the nation.[7]


Eleanor Roosevelt’s Intellectual Model

There are five 20th century First Ladies (Edith Wilson, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton) presented in this section, as all of them bear some resemblance to Eleanor Roosevelt. They used the intellect and sometimes their ambitions to promote what they thought was in the interest of their husbands. Not surprisingly, the outcomes of their initiatives vary a lot. The majority of these First Ladies following the intellectual model did not take into consideration limits of their involvement.

Edith Wilson is worth being mentioned even though she occupied the White House before Eleanor Roosevelt. Due to the sudden onset of President Woodrow Wilson’s disability to run the operate in office, for a whole year and half Mrs. Wilson wielded more power than any other First Lady after her. Later in her life she claimed that “The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not.” However, this defensive statement conceals the potentially immense consequences of her behaviour. The problem of succession was surprisingly not resolved until President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Since that time the Twenty-Fifth Amendment automatically transfers power to the vice-president in case of chief executive’s disability or death.[8]

Although the president’s legacy is typically shared with his wife, Edith Wilson did not aspire to be a highly regarded First Lady. The specific conditions of Wilsons marriage, including Woodrow’s decision of providing Edith with full access to government papers, relying on her advice concerning the White House staff and finally his fading health, move them away from a modern type of the executive marriage. Two decades later Eleanor Roosevelt became a far more astute advisor, and subsequently even as influential as other members of the Roosevelt administration. The Roosevelts’ well-balanced lifelong partnership contributed to their lasting and shared respectability.

Betty Ford stepped into the White House in 1974 after series of mostly submissive First Ladies. She won the sympathy of the nation despite the couple’s complicated circumstances. Allegations that Gerald Ford had been involved in the Watergate affair did not prevent Betty Ford from seizing the new opportunity to draw attention to some overlooked topics. By announcing that she had breast cancer she supported thousands of women in their fight against a socially stigmatized disease. Unfortunately subsequent proclamations of this active First Lady had negative side effects. She was taking a stand on the issues which sharply polarized a nation without regard for her husband’s chances for the re-election. Betty Ford’s public praise of the Supreme Court decision in the case of Roe v. Wade and her support for the Equal Rights Amendment increased Betty Ford’s own popularity but fatally damaged the popularity of her husband at the same time.


Gerald Ford never took any action to stop his wife from expressing herself freely. This was one of the reasons why he lost the 1976 elections. Thus, even a harmonious marriage can serve as a damaging element in diminishing prospects of the president. The favourite slogan of the elections said: “Elect Betty’s Husband”. Instead of re-electing him, it actually helped bury Ford’s presidency.

The vigorous Carters came to Washington in 1976 with great expectations. They assumed that values as humility and religiosity will help them lead the country in the right direction. Nonetheless, reality showed to be different. Carters had to give up practices of local politics in the Midwestand subesequently a lot of their endeavours never met with success. Rosalynn Carter refused to play the role of a traditional First Lady. She lobbied for new legislation on mental health and expected to be treated as someone who possesses popular mandate. She expected to conduct one-on-one meetings during state visits. Mrs. Carter attended the Cabinet meetings every day to take notes for her husband Jimmy. Marton pointed out that Rosalynn Carter was criticized because, unlike Eleanor Roosevelt, she lacked credentials and a strong political base. Coupled with her husband’s unconvincing performance, Carter’s legacy remains conflicted. Americans replaced them with the Reagans, a couple whose performance seemed to be far more professional and attractive, but in the same token was more calculated and less sincere.

Nancy Reagan was one of the most interesting spouses of world leaders. The means by which she influenced her husband’s positions and subsequently the policies of the most powerful country in the world are often underestimated. However, a history of the Reagans’ marriage proves to be illuminating.

Unlike the other First Ladies, Nancy Reagan had no separate agenda. Since the Reagans began to campaign in different political races, she was always responsible for the selection of the people from whose work Ronald could benefit immediately or in the future. Her position remained strong during their eight years in the White House and, even though she never attended Cabinet meetings as for example Rosalynn Carter and never had an office in the West Wing as Hillary Clinton, she decided who would be granted access to the president.


Considering Reagan’s achievements in foreign affairs, it is important to examine Nancy Reagan’s role in the realm previously mastered by Jacqueline Kennedy. Before coming into the White House Reagan shared the anti-Communist belief that the USSR was an “evil empire” which had to be defeated – this position was reflected in his Strategic Defence Initiative. How did this ‘cold warrior’ became one of the greatest peacemakers of the 20th century? The subtle influence of Nancy Reagan played a role in this. Guarding Reagan’s future legacy, she focused on the management of his overall image covered by the media around the globe. The impression of their close friendship with Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev, their friendly behaviour during the visit of Moscow, all these seemingly unimportant details helped change the mood in the East Bloc and melt the ice of mutual distrust between the Cold War enemies.

Thus, even though Nancy was not able to restore the glitter of Camelot, she used some of Jacqueline Kennedy’s tools to reach her desired goal. Taking advantage from her attractive apperance and ability to establish relationships with politicians became one of her most powerful assets. In some ways she can be regarded as a highly successful and effective First Lady, but if she is compared with Eleanor Roosevelt, the question is whether Ronald Reagan would have been the same president without the everyday help of his wife. Does America really want such a powerful First Lady?

Hillary Clinton was to answer this question in the early 1990s. No, America does not want such a powerful First Lady. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. sums up what became apparent soon after Bill Clinton’s election in 1994. “Eleanor Roosevelt was strong, but she did not try to beat men at their own game. Hillary does.” The Clinton era is sometimes called era of the co-presidency, what actually highlights the mixed feelings the country had towards Hillary.

Hillary Clinton’s first year in the White House was very dynamic. She was in charge of the new health care reform and was ostentatiously proving to the nation that they “get two [presidents] for the price of one.” However, the disappointment coming with the failure of the reform bill and Hillary’s falling approval rating proved that what mattered was not only a visible position on political issues, but a personal impression in the mind of the U.S. public. The following period appeared to be more successful as Hillary reoriented herself to more traditional activities. She travelled to Third World countries as an emissary for women and children’s issues. She became a prominent human rights activist. Her newly gained popularity and respect was even strengthened during the Lewinski affair in 1997. She decided to endure the humiliation intensified by the media coverage and to focus on the positive outcomes of her privileged position. In this, Hillary Clinton showed clear similarity with Eleanor Roosevelt, who always tried to minimize her husband’s failures and maximize his assets.

All in all, the Clintons’ marriage is characterized by a constant balancing of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. A final reconciliation came with the realization of Hillary’s own political career. Still, the end of the story remains to be written as the former First Lady has not yet decided on a presidential candidacy in 2016.

Jacqueline Kennedy’s Charismatic Model

Until now I discussed the more self-confident and dominant women who were strongly determined to shape their environment. This was not the case with other first ladies. Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Barbara Bush and Michelle Obama represent different persons with different social backgrounds, marriage experiences and incentives for life in the White House. Nonetheless, all of them played or play supporting roles. They created their own realms, in which they were more or less successful. Jacqueline Kennedy’s combination of social skills, her personal charm and very well considered tactics serve again as a prototype for the assessment.

The aura of Lady Bird Johnson is closely connected with her devotion for the topic of conservation. Even thought The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 belongs to the minor initiatives of the Johnsons’ presidency, it is at the same time a significant symbol of the time. Lady Bird attempted to mitigate the criticism of her husband’s involvement in Vietnam by attracting attention of media to less controversial issues. Her zeal was sufficient to secure her popularity but not to change public opinion on the war – the cornerstone issue of the 1960s social movements.

The reason why Lady Bird was not able to use her whole potential was a seeming lack of her husband’s support. As Lyndon Johnson never publicly appreciated work of his wifeand talked about her uniqueness (as for instance John Kennedy did in Paris), Lady Bird could not fully use her potential. Johnson’s eye-catching philandering played a role in undermining her position too. Then, even though John Kennedy was a famous adulterer, he never allowed this to harm the public image of his marriage and the honour of his wife.

Bird Johnson

The disharmony in the marriage of the Nixons unfortunately seemed even more fatal. Pat Nixon was actually subordinate to her husband’s wish for most part of her life. She served as a tireless campaigner and a silent supporter during the course of his long career and did not live to see any recognition similarly as Mrs. Johnson. The lack of communication between the couplecontributed to the nation’s cold image of the new First Lady. She was called “the Plastic Pat” even though she would have probably beaten most of the First Ladies with her inner strength and determination to overcome all failures. Yet, these precious characteristics were rarely put on display. Only Pat Nixon’s warm and successful performances during the foreign visits in the early 1970s indicated that she was almost as skillful diplomat as Jacqueline Kennedy.

The performance of Barbara Bush deserves to be examined not just because she faithfully stood beside the 42nd President of the United States but because she raised the 43rd as well. As she came to be called, “The Silver Fox”[9]chose her destiny early in the young age. She married the ambitious man who was expected to reach the highest executive position one day, similarly to Jacqueline Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt. Then, she waited whole decades with George for the biggest opportunity and finally got it in 1989. What is really interesting in the tenure of Barbara Bush is that it was particularly her person that provided Bush with the strongest asset in the elections. She was integral to George Bush’s the image as a great patriarch.

It is characteristic for those First Ladies falling under Jacqueline Kennedy’s model that they never represented a burden for their husbands. They suppressed their own identities to let their husbands shine. Being a reliable pillar of the successful presidency and not being a political initiator proved to be far more effective than immoderate involvement in spheres assigned only to president. Nonetheless, this does not mean that First Ladies cannot be useful advisers. On the contrary, Barbara Bush advised to her husband constantly and thanks to her credentials of well-informed, educated, and experienced woman (similar to credentials of Eleanor Roosevelt), she never faced criticism.

When Barack Obama won the elections in 2008 on the platform of change, no one was surprised that his wife is well-educated woman with cultivated manners, and an independent voice. However, all these valuable characteristics should not be taken for granted. Especially after the examination of the history of the Modern First Ladies it is important to realize how crucial is a proper balance between the presidential couple. Each partner should draw strength and inspiration from his counterpart and even though the media coverage of the presidential marriage can be mostly positive or neutral, there is no guarantee that the performance of the couple will reach the same level of efficiency as in the case of Roosevelts or Kennedys.

Michelle Obama launched out in the direction of Jacqueline Kennedy. She is not afraid to use the combination of her charm, style, and intelligenceand to promote the image of the happy family. Less official and more intimate public behaviour of the couple sends out a signal that there is no tension in Obamas’ relationship. On contrary, Michelle Obama comments presidential agenda only in cases when is her influence and involvement desirable. It is logical that current First Lady is, as mother of two daughters, involved in Gun Control Agenda. Similarly, she chose a fight against childhood obesity as her core issue.

The Obamas’ legacy remains of course open, but in terms of their marital cooperation, Barack and Michelle seem to properly use all of their available assets.


Even thought the essay was looking for some kind of a rule in the First Ladies’ performances, there is only one principle. It is the principle of individuality. The outcomes or efficiency of different approaches can be compared but there should not be a judgement of the individual First Ladies for not performing as well as some of their predecessors. According to previous study, the essay claims that performances of Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy remain the most effective ones in the era of the Modern Presidency. Nonetheless, work of the other First Ladies helped to create a scale according to which the theory of intellectual and charismatic model was formed.

All things considered, it seems that intellectual First Ladies following the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt achieved something outstanding. Thanks to Hillary Clinton’s persuasive performance during the presidential campaign in 2008, the chances of female presidential candidates greatly increased. It is no more a fantasy that the United States will one day have a female president. Then, all of the future presidential spouses, who will not have an ambition to candidate for president (as for instance Jacqueline Kennedy did not have), can focus on improvement of their charismatic abilities.

Bibliography and sources

Beasley Maurine The White House Press Conferences of Eleanor Roosevelt. New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1983.

Gould Lewis L. American First Ladies: their lives and their legacy. New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1996.

Harding Robert T. and Holmes A. L..  Jacqueline Kennedy: A woman for the world. New York: Encyclopedia Enterprises, 1966.

Marton, Kati Hidden Power: presidential marriages that shaped our recent history. New York: Pantheon Books, 2001.

O’Farrell, Brigid “Eleanor Roosevelt’s Legacy: How the World Recognized Workers’ Right as Human Rights” Next New Deal: The Blog of the Roosevelt Institute. Web. 2 Jul 2013.

Schlup Leonard C. and Whisenhunt Donald W.  It seems to me: selected letters of Eleanor Roosevelt. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Sferrazza Carl Anthony.  First Ladies (vol. 2): The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power, 1961-1990. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1991.


[1]   The paper monitors influence of the First Ladies in the period of the Modern Presidency (since presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt)

[2]   The paper will present opposite extremes of too ambitious and too passive First Ladies.

[3]   High-class women at the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries were expected to join various women’s clubs, and the later generation even The suffrage movement.

[4]   In other words, Eleanor Roosevelt was endowed with a great ability to properly appraise situations and people.

[5]   „The Published and Recorded Works of Eleanor Roosevelt: Columns“, The Eleanor Roosevelt Paper’s Project, (download on Jun 20, 2013).

[6]   John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. “Jacqueline Kennedy Campaign Interview“ YouTube Channel 15 April 2013 <>.

[7]   Due to the length and character of the paper all information about the First Ladies was taken from the book Hidden Power by Kati Marton.

[8]   „25th Amendment“, Cornell University Law School, (download on Jun 20, 2013).

[9]   Bush Family nicknamed Barbara as „The Silver Fox“ – expression usually used for an attractive older man.