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Papers of the First ladies

June 2024
6min read

Long-overlooked White House “Social Files” are revealing just how much power Presidents’ wives have had.

Well, sentiments change,” said Lady Bird Johnson. She was speaking of the years when Americans would no longer support President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam policies. “It was a long war, it was an undeclared war, and it was fought in the living room through the medium of television. I don’t think there’ll ever be another war like that. If we ever got, heaven help us, into anything else, and may the Lord forbid it, it had sure better be preceded by an Alamo or a Pearl Harbor so that there is a clear-cut declaration and coalescing of the American people.”

These deeply felt words from an extraordinary American woman won’t be read in her book on the White House years or in publications by journalists of the time. They are from a recent oral-history interview with Mrs. Johnson by the LBJ Library archivist Nancy Kegan Smith, conducted to help meet the increasing curiosity among scholars about the role of First Ladies. Many of the answers to questions about how much power a First Lady has can be found in the First Ladies’ papers at the eight presidential libraries and the Nixon Presidential Materials Project, which are part of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Because of this new interest, many of these files are being examined by scholars for the first time, and more and more of these papers are being made available for research. The increasing importance of the files was highlighted recently by the controversy that followed when Nancy Reagan ventured her opinion of how her husband might improve his staff after the Iran-contra story broke.

Among those who weren’t unduly surprised was Professor Lewis L. Gould of the University of Texas, a nationally recognized authority on the Presidents’ wives. “Because of the [historical] contributions of Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, and Rosalynn Carter,” he says in an essay for the National Archives’ journal Prologue (Summer 1987), “the activist model for first ladies seems firmly in place. Mrs. Reagan’s causes are conservative and less feminist, but the means by which she follows them builds on the example and techniques of her predecessors.”

Recently, several presidential libraries have opened records that reveal the workings of the First Lady’s office—known as the White House Social Office under several presidential administrations. Over the years, as the responsibilities of the First Lady increased, so did the files—there are more than three thousand boxes documenting Lady Bird Johnson’s White House years—and the sheer size of the collections will keep archivists and scholars busy for many years.

Long-overlooked White House “Social Files” are revealing just how much power Presidents’ wives have had—and how they have used it.

How did it happen that modern Presidents’ wives became more than, in Professor Gould’s words, “hostesses and passive helpmates”? The record is best followed in their own newly available writings and in the messages directed to them. Each of these modern First Ladies in her exchanges with the public chose a characteristic way of dealing with her responsibilities despite outside criticism. At the same time, each contributed to the growth of an evolving federal bureau, the “Office of the First Lady”—as it is now forthrightly labeled on Mrs. Reagan’s stationery.

Prologue describes a previously unexamined file of Eleanor Roosevelt’s labeled “Letters from Servicemen, 194245.” In it is an angry note to the President’s wife from a black private who had at first been refused service at a People’s Drug Store counter in Washington, D.C. Finally he was served his drink in a paper cup while the white man next to him received his soda in a glass. The private wrote Mrs. Roosevelt that he had four brothers in the service “but, as to what they are fighting for God only knows. I’m going to feel fine, fighting in a Jim Crow Army, for a Jim Crow Government...and when I might see a white boy dying on a battlefield, I hope to God I won’t remember People’s Drug Store on January llth....This is just to let you know how one negro soldier feel going into the service.”

In fury he attached the offending receptacle and added: “Here is the cup. Too bad some negro boy couldn’t give a dying [white] boy a cooling drink on a battlefield.”

Mrs. Roosevelt’s response was sympathetic yet crisp: “I can quite understand how what happened to you made you feel as bitterly as you do feel. There are many things of that kind which many of us in this country deeply regret. The only thing I can say to you is that under the Germans or the Japanese you would have very little freedom, and you certainly would not have the freedom to write to me as you have. You are free to go on working as a people for the betterment of your people and you are gradually gathering behind you a larger and larger group of white people who are conscious of the wrongs and who are helping to correct them.”

This President’s wife fully recognized the importance and the methodology of correspondence from the East Wing. In her autobiography she related: “Out of my response to an individual develops an awareness of a problem to the community, then to the country, and finally to the world. In each case my feeling of obligation to do something stemmed from one individual and then widened and became applied to a broader area.”

In Mamie Elsenhower’s “Appeal and Cranks” letter file is this note: “[You] would look nicer if you didn’t wear your hair like a six year old kid....[Your bangs] only draw attention to an effort to cover up a high forehead.”

Undeterred, Mrs. Elsenhower kept her bangs. Her conviction about style was expressed in a message to fashion editors in 1953: “As a soldier’s wife I learned early in life that pride in personal appearance is not a superficial thing. It rates high on every officer’s efficiency report—and his family is part of that report. An Army wife sometimes has fewer dresses than her husband has uniforms. Consequently my training has been to select carefully and wear my clothes a long time.”

She also was perfectly consistent about her own role as First Lady. As she once wrote her granddaughter-in-law, Julie Nixon Elsenhower, “There can only be one star in the heaven, Sugar, and there is only one way to live with an Elsenhower. Let him have his way.”

Betty Ford received a great deal of hostile mail after answering a hypothetical question about abortion in an interview in 1975 on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” One person wrote: “Maybe you could do a ‘Nixon’ and resign as first lady.” A more temperate letter said: “Whatever your private feeling regarding the lifestyle of your daughter…belongs entirely to you. However, as the wife of the leader of our country and therefore the highest ranking female and mother in the United States, I think your public opinion takes on a different aspect....I believe in trying to be honest you thought too narrowly and did not think of the impact on the nation.”

But many women thought differently. One wrote a letter in support of Mrs. Ford to her local Michigan newspaper, with a copy sent to the White House and now preserved at the Ford Library: “She’s a crusader in the finest tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt. She’s as dignified and honest as Bess Truman. She’s as elegant as Jacqueline Kennedy. And she’s as gracious and perspicacious as Lady Bird Johnson. So who cares if she’s married to a Republican?”

Yet the central question remains, sharpened by Nancy Reagan’s recent actions. Is it proper for the First Lady to involve herself not just in her causes and her personal relationships but in government policies and personnel as well?

Two actions by the First Ladies themselves may apply here, the first by Mamie Eisenhower. Back in the Army days of 1952, when her husband was still the head of SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers, Europe), she received a letter from a devoted “Eisenhower for President” booster with a new idea. He suggested that the already popular “I Like Ike” slogan be augmented by “Ike will put US in SHAPE.” Mrs. Eisenhower liked it. An aide wrote the reply: “Mrs. Eisenhower has asked me to thank you for your letter....She has put [it] aside for [the general] to read in his first moment of leisure.”

Another example of wifely involvement is a draft of a statement that Lady Bird Johnson wrote for possible presidential use at the critical time when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party challenged the seating of an all-white, regularly elected Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention of 1964. Asked for advice on this thorny problem, she counseled her husband to express himself as follows: “I believe that the legal delegation ought to be seated. I am not going to bend to emotionalism. I don’t want this convention to do so either. The election is not worth that.

“I am proud of the steady progress that has been made in the area of human and equal rights.


“In 1957, in 1960 and again in 1964, I was in the leadership to bring equal rights and decent progress to the Negro. I would not change a line of what has been passed or written. So long as I am President I will continue to lead the way within the guidelines of the law and within the framework of justice.”

Her draft was not used. The credentials committee eventually worked out a compromise.

Like the wartime mother who wrote President Roosevelt that if he didn’t pay swift attention to her complaint about racial discrimination against her son, she’d write Mrs. Roosevelt, many Americans do discern a positive power in the East Wing. It’s possible, Professor Gould thinks, that there are both bad and good aspects in today’s acceptance of First Ladies as virtually a new government institution. What’s bad is that the gradually enlarging cadres of assistants to the First Lady (Nancy Reagan has two dozen people on her staff) may eventually turn this nonoffice into just another government bureau. What’s good is the recognition that First Ladies can usefully serve in their individual ways and from their special positions as invaluable listeners, protocol setters, and spokespersons.

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