First ladies' life hasn't been easy from the first

May 28, 1994|By Meg Sullivan | Meg Sullivan,Los Angeles Daily News

You've come a long way, first lady.

You once strapped yourself into a whalebone corset and hung laundry in the East Wing of the White House, but now you sport a law degree and people wonder whether they elected your husband or you.

But have things really changed all that much for the woman who, no matter what the vice president claims, is really a heartbeat away from the presidency?

As a new exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley in California shows, wags were calling you "Mrs. President" in the early 19th century. You also gave up a thriving career to join your husband in the 1850s and have been dogged by the press for as long as anyone can remember.

"Madame President," which is being billed as the largest collection of first-lady memorabilia ever mounted outside the Smithsonian Institution shows how much -- and how strikingly little -- conditions have changed between Martha Washington and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"We're introducing . . . 40 remarkable women, and in the process we hope to show the evolution of American women," said museum curator Richard Norton Smith.

For this reason, Mr. Smith said he strove to go beyond the gowns worn by these women.

"Everyone who has done a first-lady show has focused on fashion," Mr. Smith said. "We didn't want to do a fashion show. It trivializes the role they played."

So besides gowns from 18 first ladies, the exhibit includes nearly 200 personal effects. In fact, the memorabilia, borrowed from presidential libraries or the women's families, is rarely more substantial than parasols, purses and plates.

Yet, from between the fripperies emerges a glimpse at the lives led by these women, who, according to Mr. Smith, "in many cases were more interesting than their husbands."

Visitors will probably be struck first by the enormous inconveniences endured by the women. Among the exhibit's most memorable pieces is Abigail Adams' sweat-stained corset, which looks much like a strait-jacket. Wife of President John Adams, she also had to hang her family's laundry in the incomplete East Wing, a model shows.

But a closer look reveals how many qualities these pioneers shared with modern political wives.

With all the hullabaloo about Mrs. Clinton's law degree, part of the exhibit, the first career woman predated her by nearly 150 years, Mr. Smith said. Abigail Fillmore, a teacher, was the first working woman to occupy the White House.

Another woman of accomplishment was Woodrow Wilson's first wife, Ellen, a trained artist whose mementos include a landscape.

"She was a fine painter," Mr. Smith said, yet she decided to chuck her career. We think of that as a modern dilemma."

Mrs. Clinton was not the first to bring activism to the role with her interest in health care.

Fifty years before the Great Depression, Rutherford B. Hayes' wife, Lucy, also assumed an activist's role, campaigning for female suffrage, among other things. Sadly, the only memento that attests to her foresight is a porcelain egg; she also started the White House Easter egg roll.

And among the exhibit is a miner's helmet given to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor, the eyes and ears of FDR.

But the earliest feminist may be Abigail Adams who urged her husband to "Remember the ladies," in a letter found when she died in 1818. "We will not bound ourselves by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."

She also was the target of criticism from some who resented the influence she held over her husband. Mrs. Adams' contemporaries called her "Mrs. President."

Many criticisms leveled at modern first ladies were first hurled decades earlier, the exhibit shows.

Like Nancy Reagan, Dolley Madison took a hit for spending too much to refurbish the White House. The difference, of course, was Mrs. Madison spent only $11,000 and the building was truly shabby then.

The hardships endured by early first ladies also sound familiar.

Grover Cleveland turned his lovely 21-year-old bride into an instant media star when he married her in the Blue Room in 1886. The paparazzi hounded the youngest first lady in American history even during her honeymoon. Mrs. Cleveland's face was plastered without her permission on a range of products, some of which are shown in the exhibit.

Sometimes coping with life in the fishbowl turned out to be too much, as shown in the section devoted to Betty Ford, who acknowledged an alcohol and drug addiction. Among other mementos, the display features the shovel she used to break ground on the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage.

More than a century earlier, John Quincy Adams' wife, Louisa, also buried herself in substance abuse, according to Mr. Smith.

"She developed a craving for chocolate," he said. She spent "long days alone on a sofa eating sweets and writing long letters extolling chocolate's healing qualities."

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