First Ladies and American Women; In Politics and at Home
Dr. Jill Abraham Hummer learned to ‘Just Say No’ from the first lady of the United States. She won’t say that led her to write about book about First Ladies, but she does give Nancy Reagan some credit.
“I grew up in the 80’s,” Dr. Hummer says with a laugh. “Any child of the 80’s is familiar with Mrs. Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign. I don’t think that awareness of the first lady set me on this course, but I guess you could say that was my first real consciousness of the American First Lady.”
Dr. Hummer’s intense knowledge and research into the role of the American First Lady is the basis of her highly anticipated book First Ladies and the American Women; In Politics and at Home.
Unelected, but expected to act as befits her “office,” the first lady has what Pat Nixon called “the hardest unpaid job in the world.” Michelle Obama championed military families with the program Joining Forces. Four decades earlier Pat Nixon traveled to Africa as the nation’s official representative. And nearly four decades before that, Lou Hoover took to the airwaves to solicit women’s help in unemployment relief. Each first lady has, in her way, been intimately linked with the roles, rights, and responsibilities of American women. Pursuing this connection, First Ladies and American Women reveals how each first lady from Lou Henry Hoover to Michelle Obama has reflected and responded to trends that marked and unified her time.
While Hummer was an undergraduate at Allegheny College she began to question the role of the First Lady. The ‘position’ is full of responsibility and attention, though its demands and expectations are completely undefined.
“I wanted to understand the strange and unique office of the first ladyship,” Dr. Hummer explains. “They are not elected, but the American people often look to them for leadership. It’s a strange study. ‘Why do they do anything?’ ‘Why does she do the things she does?’ I started asking those questions. My research really started to fascinate me.”
Hummer’s interest became the basis of her doctoral thesis while at the University of Virginia. “I spent a lot of time researching archives of presidential libraries,” Dr. Hummer says with a laugh.
Though First Ladies and American Women covers the same topic as her doctoral thesis, Hummer is quick to correct the idea that the book is an extension of her graduate work.
“It’s completely new research,” she says. “I didn’t ‘copy and paste’ a single sentence from my thesis for this book.”
Hummer divides her narrative into three distinct epochs. In the first, stretching from Lou Hoover to Jacqueline Kennedy, she demonstrates the advent of women’s involvement in politics following women’s suffrage, as well as pressures on family stability during depression, war, and postwar uncertainty. Next comes the second wave of the feminist movement, from Lady Bird Johnson’s tenure through Rosalyn Carter’s, when equality and the politics of the personal issues prevailed. And finally we enter the charged political and partisan environment over women’s rights and the politics of motherhood in the wake of the conservative backlash against feminism after 1980, from Nancy Reagan to Michelle Obama.
“It’s clear, obviously, that no two First Ladies are the same,” she says. “I think the most important thing to consider when discussing the role and impact of each First Lady is that they are all products of the time and historical moment of their husband’s presidency. They each had unique situations and how they handled that environment is what the American people will use to view them.”
Throughout the book, Hummer explores how background, personality, ambitions, and her relationship to the president shaped each first lady’s response to women in society and to the broader political context in which each administration functioned—and how, in turn, these singular responses reflect the changing role of women in American society over nearly a century.
“It’s safe to say that the role and expectations of the American First Lady have grown along with society,” Hummer explains. “The last three First Ladies, prior to Melania Trump, have all had advanced degrees and have all lead high-profile roles in the administration. For example, the more public image of Michelle Obama was working in the White House garden and doing push-ups with Ellen. But she had major influence and political capitol with the Department of Agriculture. Obviously Hillary Clinton played a significant role in her husband’s administration, both socially and helping shape policy.”
Hummer notes that, while it’s traditional for each First Lady to champion a cause, a 1995 Hillary Clinton speech to the United Nations has set the benchmark for advocating for international women’s rights and human rights. In the speech, then First Lady Clinton makes the case for human rights.
“Laura Bush and Michelle Obama followed in her footsteps, and I think their own international women’s rights projects were savvy political choices, allowing them to advocate for women’s rights while also avoiding domestic U.S. feminism.”
Without prompting, Hummer volunteers an answer to the question she says she is most often asked.
“My two favorite first ladies are Pat Nixon and Lady Bird Johnson,” she says lightheartedly, before offering a solid critique of each. “Pat Nixon was very misunderstood. She came into the White House during the rise of the women’s movement. Clearly her husband’s presidency has cast a shadow on her as a First Lady, but I think people would be surprised to learn about some of the things she represented.”
Hummer also finds Lady Bird Johnson fascinating.
“She made the case for the ‘natural woman’ approach,” Hummer says. “Lady Bird made it clear that a women’s first priority is to take care of her family. But, she was adamant that women not check out of the process. She was a strong advocate for staying involved in your community and making sure your voice is heard. She understood the fatigue in raising a family, but she warned against letting that take you out of your larger community.”
As Melania Trump navigates the role of American First Lady, Hummer thinks she has a unique opportunity to help women.
“With her husband’s reputation as a business man, and her own business interests, I think she has the chance to advocate for women entrepreneurs,” Hummer says. “It would keep her interests close to home and correspond well with the administration’s ongoing dialogue. Will she do that? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Jill Abraham Hummer is Associate Professor of Political Science at Wilson College. Her research focuses on women and the presidency, and, in particular, American first ladies. She has written for White House Studies, The Journal of Political Science Education, and PS: Political Science and Politics, and her writing has also been featured in the Christian Science Monitor, Baltimore Sun, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and The Hill.