The First Ladies of McCall’s Magazine

by Dane Rowley, 5-7-2004 

            By 1946 Rosie Riveter was out of a job.  The end of World War II marked a major turning point for women in American history.  During the Great Depression and the global war that followed, women rose to the challenging times and filled vital roles in the workplace, the halls of government and in the home.  However, the prosperous postwar years from 1946-1963 created an atmosphere of change for the roles of women in all facets of American life.  The first ladies from Eleanor Roosevelt to Jacqueline Kennedy personified these changes.  As the nation’s most famous and public wife, first ladies have not only become role models, but cultural barometers of the times in which they occupy the White House and beyond.  Through their lives, as well as through outlets of popular media and culture like McCall’s Magazine, a clear picture of the post war American woman develops.  Inevitably, such an analysis will lead to the conclusion that the American first lady occupies a singularly powerful and important position in both social and political facets of American life. Unfortunately this was not always clear. For much of American history, the study of the first lady was limited to the discussion of cutlery, hosting diplomats, or being a strong, but silent helpmate for the most powerful man in the world.  Books highlighting Jackie Kennedy’s redecorating adventures, or television specials showcasing Mrs. Reagan’s china have helped reinforce such confining representations.  In recent years, historians have started to fill the intellectual void and have developed various models and criteria for evaluating first ladies in ways that reflect their inestimable worth.

I hope that someday someone will take the time to evaluate the true role of the wife of a president, and to assess the many burdens she has to bear and the contributions she makes. --Harry S. Truman [1]

            President Truman’s statement, as quoted in Source Material: Toward the Study of the First Lady: The State of Scholarship, is at the heart of the drive to study the American first lady.  In this article, Robert Watson, who himself has become something of a pioneer in this field, asserted that as a result of a string of more visibly active first ladies, culminating with Hillary Rodham Clinton, it has become commonly held that “president's spouse wields influence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and has emerged as a political force with which to be reckoned.” [2]   Beginning in the late 1980s new publications and studies have emerged that examine the “first ladyship”, as Watson referred to it, based on the unique power they posses as individuals and as part of a marital team. [3]   Nevertheless, the recent spread of original research about his topic has highlighted some significant obstacles to its continued study.  For example, what exactly makes a “good” first lady?  While Jacqueline Kennedy was not as politically active as Eleanor Roosevelt, were her contributions less significant?  The first lady’s extra-constitutional nature makes her roles and duties difficult to assess, though, over time, she has been given plentiful “office space, a budget, and staff of considerable size, larger than those of most presidential aides and advisers.” [4]   Naturally, a job without a description is difficult to succeed in, let alone evaluate.  Another challenge is the scarcity and politicization of material written by and about the first ladyship.  Political expediency dictates that when the White House achieves something, the President must claim it as his own. [5]   This creates an atmosphere in which, even when the President’s wife contributed to something, the President must give the perception that he is a strong leader.  To overcome these challenges Watson argued that a, “systematic inquiry, a conceptual framework, the development of theory, or the development of models by which to test theories”, are essential.  Many scholars have attempted to address these academic requirements.  Watson promoted a framework of “two typologies, one based on types of influence wielded by first ladies and the other based on the status of the presidential marriage as a partnership.” [6]   In doing so, he also attempted to answer one of the primary obstacles in the study of first ladies: what roles and duties do they have?

            In Treatment of First Ladies in American Government and Presidency Textbooks: Overlooked, yet Influential Voices,” historians Anthony Eksterowicz and Robert Watson discussed some of the roles that have been adopted by the women themselves as well as those ascribed to them.  Given no clear job description, Martha Washington, the original first lady, created three distinct roles: a “public figure, social hostess, and presidential confidant.” [7]    As America grew and developed, so did the office of first lady.  More roles, though clearly gender specific, were added: “keeper of the White House and co-campaigner.” [8]   Various first ladies have filled these roles with distinction, particularly in the establishment of the White House as a true American icon.  Despite the value of these roles, they do not account for the way in which the first ladyship has evolved alongside the modern Presidency in post-war America.  As the American Presidency has grown in power, the first lady has increasingly been drawn into policy, with many having testified and lobbied before Congress. [9]   Clearly, the role of the first lady has not been immune to changes in society.

These changes in society from feminist and sexual revolutions as well as the evolution of marital conventions have were discussed by Jay Tolson in First Among Ladies.  He argued that cultural shifts in gender roles directly influenced the duties and influence of first ladies. [10]   With a rise in presidential exposure through print media, radio and television, the first lady also has become the subject of curiosity for Americans.  Despite this more public view, there remains an incalculable influence exercised by first ladies privately. [11]   A conversation between President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson exemplified this.  After a press conference, President Johnson questioned his wife about the content and delivery of the speech.  She gave him extremely intelligent and perceptive counsel, which he took very seriously. [12]   Through a variety of traditional and more progressive historians, the complexity of evaluating the first ladyship is made lucid.  Building on the works of Tolson, Eksterowicz and Watson, Myra Gutin has continued to offer an even more detailed definition of the role of the modern American first lady, along with a framework for consistent evaluation. 

            Gutin’s book, The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century, was a groundbreaking study of the first lady.  Much like Watson, Myra Gutin felt that previous studies of first ladies lacked a sufficient degree of intellectual and academic viability.  Most histories to that point had been done in dry biographical or gossip column style. [13]   Early in Gutin’s study, she identified her criteria for researching and evaluating first ladies, particularly in the 20th century.  She argued, “communication may offer the best vantage point from which to scrutinize the First Lady of the United States.” [14]   Beginning with Florence Harding in the 1920s, up to Nancy Reagan sixty years later, Gutin categorized the first ladies based on all their interaction with the public in terms of formal and informal communication.  This included anything spoken by or about the first lady in speeches, print or over the radio and television. [15]   It was this historian’s opinion that analyzing this information will lead to an understanding of how each woman perceived her role, and what influence her actions may have had.  This produces three specific models or divisions of communicative roles and influence which include: the “social hostesses and ceremonial presences,” the “emerging spokeswomen,” and the “political surrogates and independent advocates.” [16]   A social hostess and ceremonial presence is a category occupied by Florence Harding, Grace Coolidge, Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower.  These women did not give public speeches, advocate social causes or make any attempt to involve themselves in matters of political life. [17]   Most of these women withdrew from public life, attended only the most important events and were, as Gutin terms it, inactive communicators. [18]   This is not to say that these women, particularly Mrs. Truman and Mrs. Eisenhower, were not active in playing a supporting role to their husbands.  Privately each communicated with them about their duties as President and was often influential.  However in matters beyond those of a hostess and private supporter, these first ladies were relatively silent. [19]   Jacqueline Kennedy is an ideal example of the “emerging spokeswoman.”  She filled the expected roles of hostess and presidential housewife, but also became more active publicly and privately.  Mrs. Kennedy used radio and television to communicate with the American people about her White House renovation, and though she did not become active in political or social causes, she “seemed to have an awareness of their potential national audience and the benefits to be reaped by gaining its support,” for herself and her husband. [20]   It is by no means difficult to label Eleanor Roosevelt as a “political surrogate and independent advocate.” [21]   As the quintessential symbol of the actively communicating first lady, Mrs. Roosevelt traveled the nation’s roadways and airwaves in an attempt to further her husband’s and her own goals.  She balanced the traditional roles of a first lady and those of a first lady in a time of domestic and economic crisis. [22]   From civil rights to poverty, and to the emerging United Nations, Mrs. Roosevelt was actively involved in the social and political lives of Americans.  No other first lady, in any category has been as successful in doing so much with so little a job description. [23]   Utilizing these three communication models, Myra Gutin provided a way in which available records can be examined to provide insight into the office and role of the first lady systematically.   

Nine years after Gutin’s study, editor Ryan Barilleaux complied a variety of original research titled, Presidential Frontiers: Underexplored Issues in White House Politics.  This work attempted to define and estimate first ladies through “evidence of factors affecting how individual First Ladies fulfill the various roles inherent in the status of being the president's spouse.” [24]   Interestingly, the only chapter devoted solely to the study of the first lady is at the very end of the book, after all other aspects of the modern presidency are discussed.  The chapter’s author, Pamela Zwaluwenburg, sought to examine first ladies by combining traditional sources of biography and modern political models that touch on the political involvement and power of women in particular. [25]   In the attempt to define the roles and classify first ladies, Zwaluwenburg argued that the “First Lady influences presidential power, perceptions, popularity, and performance,” and therefore is an important study within political science and history. [26]   The author divided the role of the first lady into four specific areas, including hostess, public, advocate, and political roles. [27]   The role of hostess refers to duties revolving around being the “social manager of the White House.” [28]   Being willing and able to use the media to foster public support and approval of her duties in other areas, describes the public first lady. [29]   First lady advocates use their previous roles to push for specific social causes, and when these causes intersect with the political world, whether in direct support of her husband’s agenda or not, a first lady fills the political role. [30]   Other measures of evaluation include the ability to influence the President (as evidenced by his own popular and electoral success), White House participation, the first lady’s ability to meet the gender and performance expectations of the public, and her background in education, family and finances. [31]   Zwaluwenburg asserted that scientific processes of operationalization, correlation, hypothesis and research would provide insight into the success with which each first lady filled each of the four roles. [32]    This well supported, scientific approach gives additional prestige to this increasingly important study within the American Presidency. This is a modern approach for a modern American first ladyship.  Some historians however, have focused on more traditional methods to examine modern first ladies.

Behind Every Successful President: The Hidden Power and Influence of America’s First Ladies, by Alice Anderson and Hadley Baxendale, continued in the footsteps of Gutin and Barilleaux’s studies, but did so in a way that bridged the gap between the traditional and more contemporary historical approaches to the subject.  The study’s structure is biographical, but the author’s intent, arguments and conclusions are progressive.  From the title alone it is clear that the historians are focused on the first ladies specifically, not on their husbands.  As much as possible the background of the respective President’s term of office is overshadowed by the contributions of his partner. [33]   The authors relied on biographical information in order to accurately portray each first lady, and then used that information to argue how influential even the most inactive first lady has been in the last 70 years.  Indeed it is argued that a de facto “office” of the first lady has been developed in the modern American Presidency and that through that office, “a kind of ‘soft feminism’” has made it even more imperative to view the Presidency as a true partnership between co-dependent individuals. [34]   How well the authors accomplish this goal is somewhat less clear.  While the linguistic portrait of each woman powerfully illustrates how vital they are to the Executive Branch, the book fails to provide a uniform framework that can be applied to evaluate all first ladies, not just those who are most similar. 

Presidential Wives by Paul Boller takes a similar approach to the first ladyship.  The book is biographical in nature, deriving information on every first lady from Washington to Reagan through the use of essay and anecdote. [35]   Although there is attention given to the evolution of roles for women in the White House, no clear academic framework for evaluation is provided.  The author attempted to provide insight into how much of an impact each first lady had on American life, but did so based largely on personality, public perception and largely in the context of the husband’s role. [36]   For example, the biography of Mamie Eisenhower reads more like an article in a 1953 Redbook than an attempt at scholarly discourse, though it attempts to do so. [37]   Stories about how dutifully Mamie struggled through the life of being an “Army wife” and how her first fight with her husband, while informative, do not provide a uniform measure applicable to other first ladies. [38]   In terms of accomplishing the goal of informing the reader about the life of each woman, the book is successful.  The difference between this and other more recent works is the inclusion of a workable foundation from which all first ladies’ accomplishments and roles can be evaluated.

 The First Ladies, published by the White House Historical Association and written by a Smithsonian curator, Margaret Brown Klapthor does provide a rudimentary model for assessing first ladies.  Klapthor attempted to portray each woman based, not on overall accomplishments, but by physical appearance, dress as well as biographical information. [39]   It is structured in biographical style, and includes the official portrait of the first lady.  For example, Mamie Eisenhower is depicted in a 1950’s pink evening gown, pearls, purse and gloves. [40]   Both the data and the picture show this first lady to be primarily concerned with her role as a hostess and helpmate for the President.  In contrast, Eleanor Roosevelt’s portrait depicts her in multiple active poses.  She is busy writing, speaking or listening and dressed graciously, but professionally. [41]   Her activism and expansion of traditional roles as a woman and as the president’s wife are evident in the painting.  The included biographical data serves to supplement the strong impression left by the painting.  Although Klapthor employed a more traditional criterion for examining the American First Lady, she maintained uniformity and consistency and therefore her contribution is of value.       

            Another aspect of traditionalist history, as it relates to the study of first ladies is a tendency to evaluate them based on their husbands.  An example of this is FDR and the Modern Presidency: Leadership and Legacy, edited by Mark Rozell and William Pederson.  This book is a resource useful in the study of the modern American Presidency.  It discusses varying aspects of Roosevelt’s presidency, and how it became a major turning point in American history.  This is discussed from the standpoint of Roosevelt’s Executive Branch, his struggle for economic recovery, party leadership and his handling of both international and domestic crises. [42]   It is in the context of domestic social issues that Eleanor Roosevelt is discussed and evaluated.  The author provideed an assessment of Eleanor as both a first lady and a leader, based on her accomplishments, public support, and influence she may have had on her husband.  During the war, Mrs. Roosevelt was an outspoken advocate for the elimination of Jim Crow laws and vigorously fought against the internment of Japanese Americans in the Western United States. [43]   While she was unable to make the kind of progress desired in this causes, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to fight against discrimination, racism and many other social causes. [44]   Often she condemned the country for fighting against Fascism while Americans were being discriminated against. [45]   Her views were not always shared by her husband or by the general public and as a result she was often out of favor with a nation skeptical of anyone advocating widespread social change.  At times she was even accused of being linked, by association, to communists. [46]   This historian’s treatment of Mrs. Roosevelt is useful in that it provides insight into what Americans look for in a post war first lady, someone willing to get involved, but not too involved.  This has been a standard for active first ladies to this day.  

            The ongoing research of historian Gil Troy has attempted to combine the aforementioned approaches and methods in Mr. & Mrs. President from the Trumans to the ClintonsTroy argued that the study of first ladies and the presidency are moving closer together as a result of a variety of factors from the industrial revolution, cold war, sexual revolution, electoral shifts, and the “epidemic of celebrity,” to the simple fact that the modern American Presidency has of necessity become a team effort. [47]   In fact, it is the author’s focus on the Presidential Couple that makes it uniquely valuable. [48]   The historical roots of politically and socially active first ladies and presidencies are investigated with an emphasis on how the couple, as a unit, has evolved and continues to do so. [49]  In regards to the format of Troy’s argument, he took each couple separately, beginning with FDR and Eleanor, ending with the Clintons, and closely examined the couple’s personal and professional dynamics. [50]   Approaching the subject in this way provides both student and researcher a holistic view of the modern American co-Presidency.        

            There is no question that this field is relatively new.  Only in the last fifteen years has the academic community begun to see the first lady as a historically worthy topic.  The various definitions of duties and roles, the framework for original research, and models for assessment of the first lady are still in the developmental stage.  As this field grows, historians and the American people will gain a greater appreciation of the office of the first lady.  However, the foundation for this increased appreciation as well as the foundation for future scholarly work lies in an understanding, not of current attitudes regarding first ladies, but of how they were portrayed in the popular media of their times.  In his landmark study, The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century, historian William Chafe assessed the importance of print media, specifically female oriented magazines, as a means to understand and evaluate changes in gender roles and portrayals in the twentieth century. [51]   During the 1920s, McCall’s Magazine advocated homemaking as the most important and fundamental occupation.  “Only as a wife and mother, McCall's observed, could the American woman arrive at her true eminence.” [52] Subtle and obvious changes in a society can be viewed through the examination of popular media.  As the American woman changed, so too did the portrayal of her change, as reflected by a variety of articles, photographs and advertisements from McCall’s Magazine in the first half of the twentieth century.    

  Interestingly, a McCall’s article published in 1928 about a nineteenth century woman is a perfect example of the twentieth century ideal woman in the years before World War Two.  The American Romance: Mary, Wife of Lincoln, by Mrs. Lincoln’s niece [53] , Kate Helm, describes the first lady in vivid detail.  Mary Lincoln had the utmost influence on America’s most influential President.  “Mr. Lincoln appealed to the eternal feminine in Mary.  She mothered her husband as she did her children and he seemed very dependent on her.” [54]    Ms. Helm recounts several occasions where Mr. Lincoln was comforted, counseled, and coddled by Mrs. Lincoln.  The influence and power that Mary possessed was all related in the context of her duties of a wife and mother.  She not only fit into the nineteenth century concept of an ideal wife, but also the ideal of the late 1920s.  By the first year of World War Two that portrayal of women in purely homemaking roles had changed.

            Even the woman on the cover of the February 1942, McCall’s contrasts starkly from the July 1928 cover.  In 1928, the woman was in a light, flowing gown with a string of red pearl around her neck as she gently sniffed flowers. [55]   In 1942, a woman dressed in a vivid suit, and wearing an “I’ve enlisted” badge, stared straight at you with a look of courage and determination. [56]   Inside the publication an advertisement for oatmeal reaffirms these changes in society.  The ad is divided into four pictures of the same, perfectly styled, conscientious woman.  The top left shows a woman with a halo around her, as she glances upward.  In the next scene she snaps her finger with an idea, illustrating her creativity.  The bottom left shows her with a graduation cap on her head and a bowl of “Quick Quaker Oats” in hand.  She is educated and can make a healthy breakfast.  In the final scene the woman is surrounded by nearly two dozen bowls of oatmeal.  Aside from the implication of who exactly will be washing the bowls, is the admonition to save money in tight times by purchasing a food that goes a long way, “Quick Quaker Oats.” [57]   The woman of 1942 was a woman who could be a great housewife, and help win the war at home.  In the same issue, President Roosevelt appealed to “the most important woman in the world.” [58]   He asked each woman to make a pledge as “a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history,” to defend democracy and win the war by being conscientious consumers, hard workers and loyal citizens. [59]   These examples portrayed the perfect woman.  However, McCall’s women were not always shown as complacent in their expected roles.  In matters of post war working conditions, the magazine was surprisingly progressive. 

The “rights of women” were discussed in the November, 1945 McCall’s Washington Newsletter. [60]   Women were encouraged to support upcoming Equal Pay for Equal Work bill. [61]   The newsletter also discussed how influential women have been in the workforce as replacements for men fighting in the war, but that some 15 million American women wanted to continue working after the war was over; two million more than pre war levels. [62]   Unfortunately, women’s wages “[lagged] from 20 to 50 percent behind the rates for men – and often for the same type of work.” [63]   A year later in July of 1946, a detailed article was devoted to The Two Lives of Women and great need and widespread support throughout the nation for “equal pay for equal work.” [64]   These instances exemplify the way in which McCall’s reinforced traditional gender roles while simultaneously challenging and expanding these roles. 

The McCall’s Magazine continued this pattern in its portrayal of post war first ladies beginning with Mrs. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt.  Surprisingly however, very little mention was made of Mrs. Roosevelt until after the death of her husband.  In June of 1949 McCall’s published a seven month long series dedicated to autobiographical reflections of the former first lady entitled This I Remember. [65]   These articles were not only a masterfully written and detailed history of the Roosevelt family, but also the most sweepingly comprehensive series published by McCall’s from 1928 to 1958.  Mrs. Roosevelt candidly discussed issues ranging from private family memories and her husband’s political career to her own career as a wife, mother, writer, speaker, activist, United Nations leader and loyal American.  In one passage, Eleanor refuted charges that she wielded too much influence over President Roosevelt.  She clearly stood by her own and her husband’s abilities to think and lead as individuals.  “If I felt strongly about anything I told Franklin, since he could do things and I could not, but he did not always feel as I did.” [66]   In addition to her own words, the This I Remember series contained pages of photographs from Eleanor’s life.  The July edition published a collection of candid photographs taken of her working tirelessly for human rights in the United Nations. [67]    Another showed her exchanging nose kisses with a Maori woman in New Zealand. [68]   Pictures of Mrs. Roosevelt in these and other very public roles were contrasted with pictures of her reading to her grandchildren or a shot of her sitting in her inexpensive, haphazardly decorated living room. [69]   The combination of these priceless photos and Eleanor’s poignant narrative of her life clearly displayed a woman of endless ability and talent. 

Immediately following the first installment of This I Remember, McCall’s began publishing a monthly question and answer column with Eleanor Roosevelt.  The column was called If You Ask Me, and ran every month from July of 1949 to November of 1962. [70]    During these years, Mrs. Roosevelt responded to the questions of American women.  The first column’s questions concerned everything from how a mother could help her daughter meet boys, to Roman Catholic conspiracy theories and definitions of what a “liberal” was. [71]   Eleanor’s responses were often humorous (as was the case with more absurd questions) and always insightful.  She deftly addressed complex issues of medicine, domestic policy, economics, international affairs, homemaking, motherhood and popular culture.  In November 1949, Eleanor showed her quality as a wise and caring person in her response to a question about watching friends and family go through trials.  She admonished the reader: “It would not be right for you to interferer, if you could.  And somehow I think you acquire a philosophy of life which leads you to go on with your own occupations – and your chief pre=occupation is that you shall be available, if needed and not fail those you love. [72]   Her every word exuded the kind of woman who can be all thinks to all people, yet admittedly be imperfect and teachable.  It is significant that McCall’s rarely published an article about the former first lady that was not written by her. 

Mrs. Roosevelt’s impact on a generation of McCall’s readers and on all Americans was best expressed, of all places, in a Zenith Hearing Aid advertisement.

“Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. World famous wife and mother; Senior United States Representative of the United Nations General Assembly; author, radio and television commentator; internationally respected and admired for her interest in, and understanding of, all people.” [73]

Unfortunately, Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was unique, not only due to the singularity of her personality and accomplishments, but also due to the way in which she was described to Americans through popular culture.  While first lady and for nearly two decades thereafter, she represented a nation of women who, by their dedication, sweat and toil, overcame depression and a catastrophic war.  Eleanor’s exit from the White House coincided with the end of one war and the beginning of another, and came at a time of change for American women.  A difference between popular media’s presentation of Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman reveals the great changes that occurred in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, in the White House and across the nation.

            In January 1951, McCall’s Magazine published a list of Washington’s Ten Most Powerful Women. [74]  The by-line of the article described the atmosphere for women in that decade: “they include the President’s wife and the secretary of a secretary, but the cold fact is that NO woman has power except through a man.” [75]   It is within this context of praise, sobered by the realization of inequality that both Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman were listed.  Mrs. Roosevelt was named the most powerful woman in Washington, the nation, and arguably the world.  She was characterized as a wise stateswoman, who was “one of the few women who can tell the President what to do – with a fair assurance that he’ll do it…but she uses her power shrewdly and, most important of all, only when she feels it’s absolutely necessary.” [76]   In subtle contrast, Mrs. Roosevelt possessed more power and influence than most world leaders, yet was expected, as a woman, to not overuse that power.  Some of the same language is used to describe another of the most powerful women of the time, Bess Truman, but with significant differences. 

            The first pages of the article open to a full color photograph of Mrs. Truman sitting in her Independence, Missouri living room. [77]   Bess Truman was seen sitting erect in a perfectly decorated, color-coordinated room; a conflicted look on her face.  She appeared uncomfortable and ill at ease, while dutifully maintaining composure. [78]   This photograph alone speaks volumes about Mrs. Truman, who dutifully stood by her husband as he was unexpectedly thrust into the Oval Office and into a cold conflict with the Soviets.  However, Bess Truman shied away from the public eye as much as possible.  It is therefore difficult to assess her, in terms of power and public perception.  The brief description included in the above-mentioned article does assist however.  The author admits, “Nobody knows exactly how much influence Mrs. Truman exerts over the President.” [79]   During her husband’s days in the Senate, Bess Truman was his secretary and very involved with the daily duties of a powerful politician.  However, as her husband was elevated to the Presidency, Bess tried to fade as much as possible from the public eye.  This sent the Washington social scene into a tailspin because she simply did not care about gloves or gossip. [80]   Mrs. Truman personified a new kind of American first lady, one who exerted private, powerful influence over her husband, yet kept most of her own personality within the confines of her role of a dutiful wife, hostess and homemaker in the nation’s most famous home. 

            In an October 1951 article, this image of a more domesticated post war first lady was reinforced.  In The New White House, Mary Margaret McBride described in detail the remodeling of the White House during President Truman’s first full term. [81]   Prompted by the caving in of the flooring under the first daughter’s piano, the White House went through a massive remodeling and reconstruction immediately after the 1948 election. [82]    

The New White House gave a virtual play-by-play of the renovation and provided insight into the first family’s preferences in color, decorating and entertaining. [83]   Despite the way in which Eleanor was able to retain a column in which serious subjects were discussed, the article about the White House marked a significant change in McCall’s Magazine.  Virtually nothing was said about the Korean War and the magazine did not seek to tackle issues like equal pay.  At the conclusion of The New White House, the author insightfully observes of Bess Truman, “There are occasional indications that our First Lady preferred that uncomplicated private life to her present position.” [84]   It appears that Mrs. Truman was not unlike the masses of the 1950s women whom the media portrayed as being more comfortable in their Levittown home kitchens than in the halls of government debating lofty issues.  This is not to say that Bess Truman was not a skilled and genuine host, in relation to her duties entertaining people.   In fact, it was argued that history will recognize her as a likable and gracious first lady. [85]   Nevertheless, when President Truman’s chose not to seek another term as President in 1952, Bess Truman was overjoyed. [86]    

            In the months leading to the 1952 Presidential election, McCall’s Magazine published an article introducing the various women whose husbands were running for the presidency. [87]   Aside from the text of the article, the photographs and their corresponding captions are worthy of note.  Under a picture of President and Mrs. Truman, the caption reads, “Mrs. Truman, who never liked being the First Lady is glad her husband will not run again.” [88]   Of one wife of a Democratic Party candidate it was said that she utilizes her humor and common sense to help her husband on the campaign trail.  Of another, “Mrs. Vinson likes politics, horses, hats, jewelry and old furniture. Besides, she’s a wonderful cook.” [89]   From the Republican Party, Mrs. Taft was expressed to be the “only wife…who openly wants her husband to become President.” [90]   The caption under the photo of a very well dressed Eisenhower couple expressed the opinion that a move to the White House would not be difficult for a woman who constantly moved for the sake of her husband’s career. [91]   These various captions and pictures demonstrate that in post war America, presidential politics began to adopt an element of celebrity.  The increased public scrutiny through mass media made it much more difficult for a personality as unique and independent as was Eleanor Roosevelt’s to be met with widespread approval.  Each woman was quickly defined in terms of her hobbies or role as a wife, instead of her skills or abilities, and was judged in terms of what was socially fashionable at the time.    Increased public attention did lead to a broadening of the power and role of first ladies during election cycles as well as when their husband is in office.  Meet the Next First Lady actually discussed the role of the first lady and pointed out how ambiguous the “job” was and is.  Sadler asserts that first ladies are expected to work at least as hard as their husbands, but that they must “be completely charming about it all the time.” [92]   However, potential first ladies were also warned about the delicate balance between playing an important role in government and maintaining the status quo of every traditional role. 

            In Meet the Next First Lady Mamie Eisenhower was described as a perfect fit within the narrow scope the 1950s conceptualization of first lady roles.  Mamie was then taking French language lessons, by her husband’s orders, and described as a woman with no interest in politics or economics. [93]   A year later, after President Eisenhower was elected, McCall’s investigated The Women Behind Ike.  As the “first lady and number-one-housewife behind Ike,” Mamie immediately impressed those in Washington social circles and Americans as a whole. [94]   “Mrs. Eisenhower who can sparkle, is good at small talk and writes little memos to jog her husband’s memory.” [95]   Public expectation of and support for this kind of first lady only widened the chasm developing between the American woman of the war, and immediate post war years, and the American woman of the 1950s, who was primarily concerned with stability over progressive goals.  Mamie Eisenhower was praised for keeping herself in the background for her husband, but that “she [didn’t] have to make herself into a marshmallow in the process.” [96]   It had become clear that Bess Truman had been too much of a “marshmallow” through her dislike of being the first lady.  Within the culture of conformity, personalities like Mrs. Roosevelt’s would simply be too strong.  Indeed, Mamie Eisenhower, and Jacqueline Kennedy after her, maintained the balance demanded by the American people and American culture.

            Several years before becoming the first lady, McCall’s had its eye on the new wife of Massachusetts’s Junior Senator.  When the 1954 article, The Senator’s Wife goes back to School, was published the Kennedy’s had been married for almost one year. [97]   At the time, Jackie was 27, and had graduated from The George Washington University. [98]   Mrs. Kennedy was so interested in her husband’s career and dedicated to helping him achieve greater heights, she became one of twenty female students at Georgetown University’s Foreign Service School, where she studies political history. [99]   Going to school did not stop the young married woman from attending most of her husband’s speeches in the Senate and from still enjoying walks, painting and sports with him.  “She pick[ed] up homework and their joint hobbies of painting and softball as easily as most wives pick up their knitting, loves it all because she’s enchanted with life in politics, and with her favorite politician.” [100]   Within six years of that first McCall’s article, John F. Kennedy and his wife found themselves in the White House, and Jackie became one of the most popular and beloved first ladies of the twentieth century.  This was in part, due to the way she balanced her personal power and potential to effect change with the societal pull not to appear too influential or activist.   Popular media also contributed to Jackie’s success, as evidenced by the national broadcast tour of the White House with Mrs. Kennedy in February 1962.  Watched by 75% of television viewers, the documentary styled tour helped to solidify Jackie’s place as a strong woman and as the perfect homemaker. [101]   “The final product…effectively represents changing attitudes about the public and private roles of American women.  For here was Jacqueline Kennedy fulfilling her domestic duty by providing visitors a tour of her home.  Yet she also was performing a public duty as the authoritative voice of the documentary.” [102]   Communications historian Michael Curtin argues that television provided something feminists had been searching for: a way in which women can tap into their “fantasies about living a more public life while largely maintaining their conventional feminine attributes,” [103] In this way, Jackie Kennedy represents the culmination of two decades of changing perceptions and roles regarding first ladies.

            As society fundamentally changed after World War Two, American women changed with it.  Throughout the Great Depression and World War Two, women were called upon to do more at home, at work and in the government.  Record numbers of women worked during this time and many of them wanted to keep working when the men returned home from war.  As first lady during this period, Eleanor Roosevelt exemplified these changes.  She managed a successful family and changed the world for good at the same time, and she continued doing so even after she was no longer first lady.   At the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s and into the following decades, American women were again expected to fill more traditional roles, primarily as wives and mothers.  Naturally, as both an example to and a reflection of society, the institution of the first lady also experienced sweeping change.  As a result, the differences between the first ladies of post war American are incredible, yet they all reflected the times in which they briefly occupied the political and social spotlight.    




Works Cited

Anderson, Alice E., and Hadley V. Baxendale. Behind Every Successful President: The

Hidden Power and Influence of America’s First Ladies. New York: Shapolsky

Publishers, Inc., 1992. 


Barilleaux, Ryan J., ed. Presidential Frontiers: Underexplored Issues in White House Politics [book online]. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998.  Questia Online Library. Available from Accessed 1 April 2004.


Bernays, Edward L. “The Two Lives of Women.” McCall’s Magazine, July 1946, 18-21.


Boller, Paul F., Presidential Wives [book online]. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Questia Online Library. Available from Accessed 1 April 2004.


Chafe, William H. The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century. New


York: Oxford US, 1991.


Curtin, Michael. “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy,”  The

Museum of Broadcast Communications, (1995). [website]. Available from Accessed 6 May 2004.


Eksterowicz, Anthony J. and Robert P. Watson. “Treatment of First Ladies in American

Government and Presidency Textbooks: Overlooked, yet Influential, Voices.” American Political Science Association. (2000). [journal online]. Available from Accessed 1 April 2004.


Fleeson, Doris. “Washington’s Ten Most Powerful Women.” McCall’s Magazine,

January 1951, 26-28.


Gutin, Myra G. The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century [book online]. New York: Greenwood Press. 1989. Questia Online Library. Available from Accessed 1 April 2004.


Helm, Kate. “The American Romance: Mary, Wife of Lincoln.” McCall’s Magazine, July

1928, 21+.


Kinkead, Katherine T. “They Love Mamie in Augusta.” McCall’s Magazine, September

1953, 32+.


Klapthor, Margaret B. The First Ladies. Washington, D.C.: The White House Historical

Association, 1981. 


McBride, Mary Margaret. “The New White House.” McCall’s Magazine, October 1951,



McCall’s Magazine. “Cover.” July 1928.


McCall’s Magazine. “Cover.” February 1942.


McCall’s Magazine. “Quick Quaker Oats.” February 1942, 75. 


McCall’s Magazine. “The Senator’s Wife goes back to School.” October 1954, 50-51.


McCall’s Magazine. “Washington Newsletter.” November 1945, 7.


McCall’s Magazine. “Zenith Hearing Aid Advertisement.” June 1952, 105.


Roosevelt, Eleanor. “If You Ask Me.” McCall’s Magazine, July 1949, 28.


Roosevelt, Eleanor. “If You Ask Me.” McCall’s Magazine, November 1949, 28.


Roosevelt, Eleanor. “This I Remember.” McCall’s Magazine, June-December 1949.


Rozell, Mark J. and William D. Pederson, eds., FDR and the Modern Presidency: Leadership and Legacy [book online]. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997. Questia Online Library. Available from Accessed 1 April 2004.


Sadler, Christine. “Meet the Next First Lady.” McCall’s Magazine, May 1952, 52+.


Sadler, Christine. “The Women Behind Ike.” McCall’s Magazine, April 1953,



Tolson, Jay. “First Among Ladies,” U.S. News and World Report, v130, no 2, 15 January 2001, 38-39.


Troy, Gil. Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.


Watson, Robert P. "Source Material: Toward the Study of the First Lady The State of Scholarship." Presidential Studies Quarterly 33, no. 2 (2003): 423+. Accessed 31 March 2004.


Wiese, Otis L. “Public Service Announcement.” McCall’s Magazine, February 1942,



[2] Watson, 3.

[3] Watson, 4.

[4] Watson, 7.

[5] Watson, 6.

[6] Watson, 3.

[7] Eksterowicz, Anthony J. and Robert P. Watson. “Treatment of First Ladies in American

Government and Presidency Textbooks: Overlooked, yet Influential, Voices.” American Political Science Association. (2000). [cited April 1, 2004] [[journal online]., 2.

[8] Eksterowicz and Watson, 4.

[9] Eksterowicz and Watson, 4.

[10] Tolson, Jay. “First Among Ladies,” U.S. News and World Report vol.130, no 2, (January 2001) 38-39.

[11] Tolson, 38.

[12] Eksterowicz and Watson, “Treatment of First Ladies in American

Government and Presidency Textbooks: Overlooked, yet Influential, Voices.” American Political Science Association, 4.

[14] Gutin, 2.

[15] Gutin, 2.

[16] Gutin, 2-3.

[17] Gutin, 7. 

[18] Gutin, 7.

[19] Gutin, 22.

[20] Gutin, 41.

[21] Gutin, 81.

[22] Gutin, 81.

[23] Gutin, 81.

[25] Zwaluwenburg, 195.

[26] Zwaluwenburg, 196. 

[27] Zwaluwenburg, 198.

[28] Zwaluwenburg, 198.

[29] Zwaluwenburg, 198.

[30] Zwaluwenburg, 198. 

[31] Zwaluwenburg, 198-201.

[32] Zwaluwenburg, 201.

[33] Anderson, Alice E. and Hadley V. Baxendale, Behind Every Successful President: The Hidden Power and Influence of America’s First Ladies (New York: Shapolsky, 1992), iv.

[34] Anderson and Baxendale, v.

[36] Boller, vi.

[37] Boller, 333.

[38] Boller, 333-334.

[39] Klapthor, Margaret B., The First Ladies, (Washington, D.C.: The White House Historical

Association, 1981), 76.

[40] Klapthor, 76-77. 

[41] Klapthor, 72-73.

[43] Rozell and Pederson, 210.

[44] Rozell and Pederson, 211.

[45] Rozell and Pederson, 211-212.

[46] Rozell and Pederson, 213.

[47] Gil, Troy, Mr. & Mrs. President from the Trumans to the Clintons, (Lawrence KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000) ix.

[48] Troy, xi. 

[49] Troy, xii-xiii.

[50] Troy, xiii.

[52] Chafe, 113-114.

[53] Kate Helm, “The American Romance: Mary, Wife of Lincoln,” McCall’s Magazine, Jul 1928, 21.

[54] Helm, 106.

[55] McCall’s Magazine, Cover, Jul 1928.

[56] McCall’s Magazine, Cover, Feb 1942.

[57] McCall’s Magazine, “Quick Quaker Oats,” Feb 1942, 75. 

[58] Ed. Otis L. Wiese, “Public Service Announcement”, McCall’s Magazine, Feb 1942, 16.

[59] Wiese, 17.

[60] McCall’s Magazine, “Washington Newsletter,” Nov 1945, 7.

[61] Washington Newsletter,” 7.

[62] Washington Newsletter,” 7.

[63] Washington Newsletter,” 7.

[64] Edward L. Bernays, “The Two Lives of Women,” McCall’s Magazine, Jul 1946, 18.

[65] Eleanor Roosevelt, “This I Remember,” McCall’s Magazine, Jun 1949, 12.

[66] Roosevelt, 14.

[67] Eleanor Roosevelt, “This I Remember,” McCall’s Magazine, Jul 1949, 18.

[68] Eleanor Roosevelt, “This I Remember,” McCall’s Magazine, Aug 1949, 15.

[69] Eleanor Roosevelt, “This I Remember,” McCall’s Magazine, Jun 1949, 12; “This I Remember,” Sep 1949, 17.

[70] Eleanor Roosevelt, “If You Ask Me,” McCall’s Magazine, Jul 1949, 28.

[71] Roosevelt, 28.

[72] Eleanor Roosevelt, “If You Ask Me,” McCall’s Magazine, Nov 1949, 28.

[73] McCall’s Magazine, Zenith Hearing Aid Advertisement, Jun 52, 105.

[74] Doris Fleeson, “Washington’s Ten Most Powerful Women,” McCall’s Magazine, Jan 1951, 26.

[75] Fleeson, 26.

[76] Fleeson, 26.

[77] Fleeson, 27.

[78] Fleeson, 27.

[79] Fleeson, 26.

[80] Fleeson, 126. 

[81] Mary Margaret McBride, “The New White House,” McCall’s Magazine, Oct 1951, 32.

[82] McBride, 33.

[83] McBride, 33, 59.

[84] McBride, 76.

[85] Doris Fleeson, “Washington’s Ten Most Powerful Women,” McCall’s Magazine, Jan 1951, 133.

[86] Christine Sadler, “Meet the Next First Lady,” McCall’s Magazine, May 1952, 52.

[87] Sadler, 52.

[88] Sadler, 52.

[89] Sadler, 52.

[90] Sadler, 52.

[91] Sadler, 52. 

[92] Sadler, 122. 

[93] Sadler, 122.

[94] Christine Sadler, “The Women Behind Ike,” McCall’s Magazine, Apr 1953, 52. 

[95] Sadler, 53.

[96] Katharine T. Kinkead, “They Love Mamie in Augusta,” McCall’s Magazine, Sep 1953, 127.

[97] McCall’s Magazine, “The Senator’s Wife goes back to School,” Oct 1954, 50-51.

[98] “The Senator’s Wife goes back to School,” 50-51.

[99] “The Senator’s Wife goes back to School,” 50-51.

[100] “The Senator’s Wife goes back to School,” 50.

[101] Michael Curtin, “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy,” The Museum of Broadcast Communications, Accessed 6 May 2004.

[102] Curtin.

[103] Curtin.