Like so many Americans, Myra Gutin remembers tuning into Jackie Kennedy’s televised White House tour with her parents in 1962. Gutin was only eight years old as she watched the first lady welcome viewers into the president’s home.
“And I just remember, as a kid, just being blown away by it,” Gutin now says. “But I think, truthfully, I was more blown away by Mrs. Kennedy — because she was a huge celebrity.”
Decades after that initial fascination with the president’s wife, Gutin is the founding president of the newly-launched First Ladies Association for Research and Education, or FLARE — which bills itself as first formal professional association dedicated to the study of American first ladies. The association seeks to pull together a variety of professionals, from scholars to archivists to first ladies’ staff, to learn more about the role that first ladies have played in American history.
This association is ever relevant to a nation that has long viewed its first ladies as cultural icons before political figures. Jackie Kennedy, Gutin notes, was a fixture in fashion magazines during her time as first lady.
“And although she's known to most as a cultural and fashion icon, what she would want to be remembered for is for her expansive knowledge of history and of historic preservation,” Gutin said, citing the White House tour as a product of her passion.
Kennedy was far from the only first lady whose story has been reduced to her choice of clothes. As Martha Washington traveled from Virginia to New York over two centuries ago, she noted that her hair had to be washed and dressed every day in her new role as the president’s wife. To this day, the Smithsonian’s display of first ladies’ dresses remains many Americans’ only knowledge of them. And though fashion is an important way to connect with history, “it's a very one-dimensional lens to look at them through,” Gutin says.
This sentiment is shared by Anita McBride, a founding member of FLARE who previously served as Laura Bush’s chief of staff. McBride’s self-described “front row seat” to her advocacy and involvement helped spur her dedication to telling first ladies’ stories.
McBride was serving in the White House on Sept. 11, 2001, and though she was not yet working for Laura Bush, she remembers the then-first lady’s remarks that day as a pivotal moment. It was after that day that Laura Bush was dubbed the “comforter-in-chief” for her role in calming the nation, a role many other presidential spouses have stepped into as well.
“I think that is such an example of a role a first lady can play to have an impact on the nation,” McBride, who also directs American University’s First Ladies Initiative, said. “And this was obviously a unique situation. But there have been other times in our history where the first lady's voice has really helped in areas of national tragedy,” she added, noting Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in rallying Americans around the war effort during World War II.
Of course, the exact role of the first lady changes from person to person. There was Eleanor Roosevelt, who some historians refer to as the “gold standard” of first ladies. There was Dolley Madison, who is most well-known for saving George Washington’s portrait from a White House fire ignited by the British during the War of 1812. There was Mary Todd Lincoln, who visited wounded Union soldiers on horseback during the Civil War. And in recent years, there was Hillary Clinton, who won a seat in the Senate while serving as first lady and went on to serve as secretary of state.
As the only woman to win a major party's presidential nomination in U.S. history, Clinton's 2016 White House campaign also came close to installing her husband, former President Bill Clinton, as the nation's first-ever first gentleman.
James Rosebush, who worked for Nancy Reagan during her husband's tenure in the White House, was the first person to serve as a commissioned officer for the president while he was chief of staff for the first lady. When he thinks of her legacy, Rosebush said he thinks of a graduation ceremony they attended in Florida for children who had completed their drug rehabilitation program. Rosebush sat beside Reagan as she watched kids hugging and crying their parents when their names were announced. In her hands, she clutched index cards with her prepared remarks written in blue ink. Everyone was crying, Rosebush said, from the Secret Service to the press corps.
Before addressing the gymnasium, Reagan turned to Rosebush and ripped up her index cards.
“That was an example of a breakout moment for her,” Rosebush said, “and it worked, because she exposed herself. She made herself vulnerable.”
Rosebush said Reagan’s role was supporting her husband in his presidency, an idea echoed by Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, Kenneth Duberstein. Duberstein said on many mornings, Nancy Reagan called him as her husband made his way to the office, giving him advice on scheduling based on how well her husband had slept the night before.
It’s stories like these that FLARE wants to share, spreading the word about the unpaid, unelected and full-time job of the first lady. Gutin said after she gives lectures, people will often come up to her with one of two reactions: either they had no idea about first ladies’ impact and they want to know more, or they have a story of their own to share from meeting one of the presidents’ spouses. That’s how she heard some of her favorite first lady stories, including one from a woman who was at the Kennedy inaugural ball when Jackie looked right at her and said, “I have that necklace, too.”
According to the “godfather of first lady scholarly study,” Lewis Gould, many first ladies are highly influential, despite being shortchanged in their time. Gould, who taught the first university course on first ladies, once had Lady Bird Johnson visit his classroom. Before she came, he started getting calls from news organizations and others asking if they could attend his usually-15-person class.
“And I began to perceive that first ladies were public figures who had this culture of celebrity around them,” Gould said.
In their status as public figures, McBride said presidents’ spouses can help “soften the blow” of public perception about the president. After all, the first lady is almost always much more popular than her husband. When Barack Obama left the White House with a 58% approval rating that had slowly risen toward the end of his term, the numbers read even better for Michelle Obama, who was viewed favorably 72% of respondents in a Pew poll. As for the Trumps, the former president left office with a falling approval rating near 30%. Still, Melania Trump slightly outshone him, with a 42% approval rating according to a CNN/SSRS poll.
As for the nation’s first-ever second gentleman, Gutin said she’s watching Doug Emhoff, who’s already proven to be politically active on issues, with great interest. And the current first lady, Jill Biden, is setting a new historical precedent by holding a job outside the home — teaching English and writing courses at Northern Virginia Community College.
“We've been inching towards this modern characterization of the spouse to be a working spouse,” McBride said. “And she's getting us there. So you know, each of them do make some contribution in their own way.”
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