Southwestern Hzstorzcal Quarterly
Preszdentzal Wvwe.: An Anecdotal History By Paul F. Boiler, Jr. (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1988. Pp. viii+533. Preface, notes, index. $19.95.)
Preszdentzal Wzves appears at a time when there is increasing interest on the part
of scholars and the public about first ladies. Filled with facts and lively anec-
dotes it gives the reader personal insights and understanding for every first
lady from Martha Washington to Nancy Reagan. Each chapter starts with a bio-
graphical section followed by vignettes. The reader becomes aware of how very
divergent the first ladies have been-a divergence that reflects American so-
ciety. Amazingly, one theme shared by all seems to be a genuine love for their
husbands and a willingness to help in meeting the demands of the presidency.
Martha Washington approached the role of "Lady Washington" with great
seriousness and purpose. Although she found being first lady dull and too cere-
monial, she resolved to be happy and carried out her new role admirably with a
simplicity and civility that reflected the needs of the new emerging nation.
The chapter on Mary Todd Lincoln is of particular Interest and is presented
with great sensitivity. The portrait that emerges is of a woman who deeply
loved her husband, but who was also extremely demanding and had great
mood swings exacerbated by the early death of their beloved son Willie. Al-
though eager to take up her duties as first lady, she found only heartbreak in
the White House.
In the twentieth century, the role of the first lady evolved into much more
than being a helpmate to her husband and presiding over ceremonial func-
tions. In 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke,
Edith Wilson began a year of "stewardship." She acted as her husband's inter-
mediary and decided what matters to bring to his attention. No first lady has
ever wielded the political power that Edith Wilson did during the year that she
essentially carried on with the duties of the presidency. Eleanor Roosevelt set
the tradition for the activist first lady. She often served as her husband's eyes and
ears, was an influential adviser, and a tireless champion for New Deal programs.
Lady Bird Johnson came to the role of first lady totally unexpectedly, but
with an excellent understanding of politics. In 1964, she became the first presi-
dential wife to take to the campaign trail on her own with the "Whistlestop
tour" through the South. Shortly after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,
Mrs. Johnson carried a very personal message of love and caring to the South.
Mrs. Johnson decided to focus her attention as first lady on beautifying the na-
tion, and particularly the nation's capital. By the time she left office, Washing-
ton had been transformed with mass plantings of flowers in public places and
vacant lots that had been turned into playgrounds.
The book ends with a chapter on Nancy Reagan, who had been a popular
first lady of California and was surprised by the bad press she received her first
year as first lady. As she grew more comfortable with her role and took on the
project of fighting drug abuse among young people she became increasingly
Both Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Reagan summed up their advice to future first
ladies in the same way. Both advised that a first lady should always be herself
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 95, July 1991 - April, 1992. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117153/. Accessed March 3, 2015.