From Jackie Kennedy to Michelle Obama, each of these women has carved out her own path, all while raising her children, serving as her husband’s greatest protector and confidante, and negotiating the fraught relationship between her staff in the East Wing and her husband’s advisers in the West Wing.
I loved Kate Andersen Brower’s The Residence and was super excited to receive First Women as part of the CBR gift exchange last year. I’m always slow to get to the books I own vs. library books with deadlines but this one was worth the wait.
Brower focuses on the “modern” first ladies beginning with Jackie Kennedy and ending with Michelle Obama; she also has a few anecdotes regarding Mamie Eisenhower due to her relationship with Pat Nixon and her poor treatment of Jackie Kennedy. Originally published in April of 2016, the author touches on Hillary Clinton’s historic run for president but since she had know way of knowing the outcome there is no mention of Melania Trump. Which is fine by me although I’d love to hear her take on all that!
I came away from this one with a renewed respect for Lady Bird Johnson, a newfound respect for Betty Ford and a little confused about Michelle Obama. Betty Ford, as many people know, suffered from alcoholism and a dependence on pills. Her personal struggle became public knowledge and she eventually became the spokesperson for the disease but what I didn’t know is that she also brought national attention to breast cancer! She hosted Lady Bird Johnson at the White House and then the next day she went for a mastectomy! She also wouldn’t let her staff hide behind a generic “health issue” explanation in the press but was honest with the country about a formerly taboo topic.
On the tenth anniversary of her founding of the Betty Ford Center, President Ford said, “When the final tally is taken, her contributions to our country will be bigger than mine.” And that was just fine with him.
As for Michelle Obama, there is a lot stuff about how she didn’t want to lead a public life and how anxious she is to get out of the White House. Also, while I knew the Obamas were close to the Bushes, Brower really pushes the point that Michelle dislikes Hillary and prefers Laura’s company. It just doesn’t mesh with the woman I see on television but maybe she’s just really good at playing her part in the public eye.
Michelle is frustrated in the White House, in part because she had to give up her career. “She can’t get up and leave and take a job in Europe or Chicago,” [Reggie] Love says, “so if there was something that was really appealing to her somewhere else she can’t do it.” She also doesn’t mask her feelings well.
Several first ladies were integral sounding boards for their husbands, Rosalynn Carter and Lady Bird Johnson as well as Jackie Kennedy. Lady Bird in particular did a lot of campaigning for her husband (when he ran for VP as well as President) and Betty Ford even gave her husband’s concession speech when he had lost his voice.
Brower also gives a lot of insight into the marriages of these women to the “most powerful man” in the world. It was interesting to discover that many of the Republican First Ladies had gone on record as being Pro-Choice or at least more liberal in a general sense than their husbands.
You’ll mostly feel really sorry for Pat Nixon but get all the feels about the Reagans and Fords. And who doesn’t love both sets of Bushes?
There is also some gossip and catty statements made by one First Lady in reference to another. In case you were wondering, Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan hated each other and Mamie Eisenhower tried to get Jackie Kennedy to pass out on a White House tour only a few weeks after having a C-section.
To avoid essentially writing a book report I will just say this: If you’re interested in political history this is a must read. Brower knows her stuff; this is exceptionally researched and well written. I look forward to her next work!