The Alethea Club met recently in the home of Norma Caldwell. New officers were elected. They are president, Audrey Borecky; vice president, Ann Adair; recording secretary, Jeanette McGrew; treasurer, Virginia Haertlein; chaplain, KarLynn Roberts; and parliamentarian, Maxine Lane.
In keeping with the club’s theme for 2013-2014, “Lesser Known First Ladies,” Adair gave the introduction from the book “First Ladies” by Betty Boyd Caroli.
Adair explained that, at first, the prospect of writing a book of presidents’ wives had not interested Caroli. Her curiosity was aroused, however, when she looked at what had been published on the subject. Evan a cursory reading of the standard works revealed striking patterns among presidents’ wives. Most of them came from social and economic backgrounds significantly superior to those of the men they married. Many of the women wed in spite of strenuous parental objections to their choices, and some of the men were younger than the women they married. Several of the wives had eased the financial burdens of their households by managing family farms, teaching school, and working as secretaries after their marriages. There appeared to be a pattern of early exposure to politics, and Caroli was struck by the number of male relatives that had at one time held political office.
Caroli observed that a handful of presidents’ wives achieved great fame but others of equal or greater interest have been allowed to drop into obscurity. Nearly 170 years before Jackie Kennedy charmed Paris, Elizabeth Monroe was dubbed “la belle Americaine” in the French capital. Abigail Adams is remembered for her spirited vitality while her daughter-in-law, Louisa Adams, who showed considerable courage by traveling from St. Petersburg to Paris during the Napoleonic Wars, is all but forgotten. Eleanor Roosevelt’s break with tradition is well-documented, especially her agreement to meet regularly with women reporters, but her predecessor, Lou Hoover, gained little credit for the feminist speeches she delivered on national radio or for the fortitude she showed in her personal life. Living in China during the Boxer Rebellion, she witnessed gun battles in front of her house but refused to show fear or to flee.
Caroli also traced the evolution of the title “first lady.” In 1789, crowds accustomed to the pomp of royal personage heralded the wife of their new president as “Lady Washington.” Soon, however, when the United States reaffirmed its democratic vows and “plain folks” politics, “first lady” made no sense at all. The women were addressed as “presidentress” or “Mrs. President” or, frequently, not mentioned at all.
Eventually, the country grew more familiar with its chief executive and expectations for the president’s wife also heightened. In the 1850s, James Buchanan’s young niece served as his official hostess and was praised as “our Democratic queen,” while in the Republican administration that followed, Mary Lincoln became the “Republican queen.”
According to Caroli, during the last quarter of the 19th Century, as the mass media made the presidents and their families more familiar across the continent, the presidents’ wives began to assume a popularity of their own. Lucy Hayes, who accompanied her husband on the first trip a president ever took across country, heard herself heralded as the “first lady of the land.”
In the 1930s, Caroli writes, as the New Deal drew power and attention to Washington, and World War II added a large dose of unifying patriotism, the use of “first lady” seemed to flourish and even began to appear in dictionaries.
Caroli concludes the introduction to her book by saying that over time, “first ladies” have ranged in age from early 20s to late 60s, from superbly educated for their time to poorly schooled. Some showed themselves immensely courageous and adventuresome, others were emotionally unstable, withdrawn, and beset by enough personal tragedies to defeat even gargantuan wills. The roll of “first lady” does not come with a job description or an instruction manual — each woman has to figure out the job for herself.
After Adair completed her program, a formal business meeting was held. A note was read from Linda Bateman, director of YouthPartners of Jefferson County, thanking the club for the $100 donation made to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. It was announced by Billie Minton that the November meeting would be a brunch held at Margland.