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Modern First Ladies: Creating (and Re-Creating) an Identity

Evening Program with Book Signing

Tuesday, July 17, 2018 - 6:45 p.m.
Code: 1H0356
First Lady Michelle Obama during the national anthem at Camp Lejeune, N.C., 2011 (White House)

Over the course of more than 200 years, the only thing America’s first ladies share is the fact that their spouse is the president of the United States. These women are otherwise unique individuals, with their own personality, interests, and desire to embrace or shun the spotlight. A first lady’s distinctive choices in shaping her role inevitably affect our culture and America’s standing around the world.

Andrew Och, author and producer of the C-SPAN series “First Ladies: Influence and Image,” looks at how a number of 20th- and 21st-century residents of the White House created identities that reflected their personal outlooks and the issues of their times, and complemented the goals and profile of their husbands’ presidencies.

Edith Roosevelt focused on the symbolic aspect of the White House by working with an architectural firm to return a much-renovated executive mansion to the Federal style we know today. Edith Wilson controlled all professional and personal access to her husband after his stroke, essentially making her the first unofficial female president. Laura Bush—whose outlook on her role changed after 9/11—became the most-traveled first lady in history and an ambassador for women’s rights in war-torn and oppressed countries. Hillary Clinton resurrected her husband’s political career when they married, and as a political power couple they went all the way to the White House—almost twice—as she became the first female presidential candidate for a major party. Michelle Obama brought a fresh sense of reality to her role while furthering causes related to children and families. And the role of Melania Trump, our current first lady, is still unfolding.

Och’s book Unusual for Their Time: On the Road with America’s First Ladies, Volume Two (Tactical 16 Publishing) is available for sale and signing after the program.

Smithsonian Connections

Edith Roosevelt was a reluctant first lady. Despite this, she had the presence and determination to bring about a major innovation to the White House: separating the living and working spaces. Smithsonian Channel spotlights how the presidential residence we know today came to reflect that vision.

American Women's History Initiative

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