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Professor examines the power and influence of first ladies from Lou Henry Hoover to Michelle Obama

She is the president's wife and adviser, and - as professor MaryAnne Borrelli argues in her new book - she is an influential political actor.

In "The Politics of the President's Wife," (Texas A&M University Press, 2011) Borrelli analyzes the roles played and influence wielded by first ladies from Lou Henry Hoover to Michelle Obama. Drawing from the archival resources of the presidential libraries, Borrelli makes a compelling case for the first lady as an important member of the president's administration.

"This post is a complicated mixture of the formal and the informal," Borrelli said. "Formally, the position is defined by statutory and case law. Informally, these women receive their highest approval ratings when presenting themselves as apolitical and nonpartisan moral guardians, yet they are popularly expected to advance public policy initiatives and reforms."

Borrelli, a professor of government at Connecticut College who specializes in United States politics, gives readers an in-depth look at how these women, filling an extremely gendered role, have navigated and negotiated presidential politics. Their stories offer a fascinating glimpse of the inner workings of the least transparent - and yet highly publicized - position within the administration.

Borrelli points to Mamie Eisenhower as an example of a first lady who portrayed herself as wholly centered in the private sphere, and yet made pointed policy and political statements.

"She invited Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to the White House, seating them at the President's table, after they had been questioned by Senator Joseph McCarthy," Borrelli said. "The president never directly commented on Senator McCarthy or on the hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, so her actions had added significance."

Lady Bird Johnson was also impressive, Borrelli said. She was sent into the South to persuade white voters to stick with the Democratic Party.

"An electoral win in the South was almost impossible after President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but Johnson and his advisers agreed that the states could not be 'written off,' by the first southern president in generations," Borrelli said. The administration was hoping the civility that had traditionally been accorded white women would defuse segregationist anger."

It didn't - she confronted violent protesters on several occasions, Borrelli said. "But first ladies time and again serve in this role of mediator, seeking popular support for the president's policies. Think of Laura Bush campaigning in the swing states on behalf of her husband and Republican congressional candidates," she added.

Each first lady brings her own set of values with her, and those often dictate where she exerts her influence and where she rebels against the constructed norms.

Borrelli says Michelle Obama, for example, is a fascinating study. Her outreach to children and to parents is very much in keeping with first lady traditions of addressing women-centered, private-sphere issues, but she has made her mark by reaching out to people typically neglected or stigmatized by decision-makers, such as urban families, families of color, the working poor and military families. And she has done so while dealing with especially complicated gender and race stereotypes.

"People seldom consider the ways in which race and gender interact. Because a white first lady has been the norm, those women could sidestep this association. But that isn't an option for Obama," Borrelli said. "She has to negotiate a diverse public's presumptions and judgments about black women. And she has done this well."

Borrelli added that Obama's cautious shifting of traditions is entirely absent from her personal style, which Borrelli describes as powerful.

"Obama takes a very distinctive approach to fashion. Very consistently, the designer and the design deliver a message," Borrelli said. "The dress Obama wore when speaking at the recent Democratic Party Convention, for example, was designed by an African American woman designer from Detroit, and it will be sold in retail stores. It was a subtle, powerful, strategic statement, a gender performance that epitomized the complexity of this first lady's politics. There are those who will say, 'Who cares about a dress?' But she was the most watched of all the convention speakers and people will remember her self presentation, her gender performance."

Through this comprehensive study of first ladies, Borrelli forces readers to explore prevailing conceptions of power, identity and office and to further examine the presidency as an evolving philosophical, cultural and political creation.

"As we study the first ladies, we learn about our selves, our political system and our values," she said.

September 20, 2012