The First Ladies of McCall’s Magazine
by Dane Rowley ,
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 
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.”  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.  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.”  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.  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.”  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.”
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.  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.  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.  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.
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
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.”  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.  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.  The author divided the role of the first lady into four specific areas, including hostess, public, advocate, and political roles.  The role of hostess refers to duties revolving around being the “social manager of the White House.”  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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
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.  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.  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.  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
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 Clintons.
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.  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.”  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
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.  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.  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.”  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.”  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.  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.  Women were encouraged to support upcoming Equal Pay for Equal Work bill.  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.  Unfortunately, women’s wages “[lagged] from 20 to 50 percent behind the rates for men – and often for the same type of work.”  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.”  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.
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
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.  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.  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.  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.” 
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.
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.”
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
The first pages of the article open to a full color photograph of Mrs. Truman sitting in her
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.  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. 
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.
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.”
It appears that Mrs. Truman was not unlike the masses of the 1950s women whom the media portrayed as being more comfortable in their
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.
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.”
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.”
From the Republican Party, Mrs. Taft was expressed to be the “only wife…who openly wants her husband to become President.”
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.
These various captions and pictures demonstrate that in post war
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.
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
Several years before becoming the first lady, McCall’s had its eye on the new wife of
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.
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