First Women

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My mom was a very confidant woman who did her best to boost my own sense of self esteem. Sadly it took many years for me to overcome the shyness and self doubts that I carried in my heart. I eventually reached a level of comfort in just being myself, but it was not without a great deal of effort and study of human nature. I can now honestly say that I truly believe one of my mother’s favorite mantras which was that even the most outstanding people among us are in the end just as human as we are. Once I fully understood and believed that concept I was a different person, ready to think not so much about the impressions that I was making, but more about how the individuals around me were feeling. It became my goal to focus on helping others to find the power of their inner spirit, and doing so has made all the difference in how I greet life and its challenges.

I was reminded of just how alike we all are in our needs for acceptance and love as I read a book called First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies by Kate Anderson Brower. One of my cousin’s had inadvertently left the volume at my home after a visits. Since she would not be returning for some time she suggested that I just keep it and enjoy reading it if I felt so inclined. For I time I was too busy to pay it much mind, but it kept taunting me as it lay unopened on by bedside table. Recently I decided to give it a try and I have found it to be quite delightful.

The author begins with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and ends with Michelle Obama. The chapters discuss what it is like to be a political wife, the sisterhood of this uncommon sorority, the courage that is often demanded of these women, the trials of motherhood while in the political eye, the roles of being wives and supporting actors to powerful men, the bad blood that sometimes spills over from one first lady to another and the general duties required of these women. It is an informative text that provides a rare portrait of each woman and the ways in which they approached a job that some of them never even wanted to have.

I found myself feeling very close to several of these women, and identifying with the joys and heartaches that come from their roles. I was surprised by stories of misunderstandings between them as well as unlikely alliances that evolved over time. Of course I developed favorites, some of whom astonished me just a bit. Most of all I learned how truly human each woman was and in some cases still is.

Jackie Kennedy was perhaps the most tragic figure among all of the women. She was truly in love with her husband and she overcame her almost paralyzing shyness to help him in his quest. She totally believed in him and his ability to change the world for the better, but she was not naive about his many dalliances. Nonetheless she forgave him again and again, and upon his assassination she was utterly crushed. She was a beautiful and delicate woman who somehow mustered unbelievable courage when she most needed it, and was admired by all of the first ladies who followed her.

After reading about each of the women I decided that my favorites were Ladybird Johnson, Betty Ford, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama. Interestingly Ladybird and Betty became great friends, as have Laura and Michelle. All four were bright and gracious women who balanced courage under fire during their time in the White House with a dash of kindness. These four seemed to understand better than others just how important it is to be honest, but also to be helpful and kind. The portrait that the author draws of them makes me think that I would truly enjoy a conversation over lunch with any of them.

Pat Nixon was another long suffering figure. Her life was punctuated with one challenge after another, and during her time in Washington D.C. she was terribly misunderstood. She had a strength that few of us ever noticed. She wanted to be loved by the American people but that kind of feeling was never really accorded to her. Instead she quietly endured opinions about her and her family that were often unfounded.

There were little tidbits of information included in the book that were new to me. I had not realized that the Carters did not care for the Clintons and in particular they were unwilling to support Hillary in her bids for higher office. In fact the bad feelings between the two families run rather deep. Rosalyn and Hillary were both strong-willed women with great influence on their husbands, but Rosalyn viewed the Clinton’s as people more interested in power than the people of this country. 

Nancy Reagan was so utterly devoted to Ronnie that it seems as though she never really became close to any of the other ladies. Everything in her world was about her man and her protectiveness for him was all consuming. She put up a wall that none of the other ladies in the sisterhood were ever able to breach.

Barbara Bush was one of a kind, a woman who more often than not spoke her no nonsense piece of mind without filters. Everyone liked her and she was perhaps the most popular first lady with the permanent White House staff. Still, she often felt hurt by the kind of political barbs that are so often hurled at the president and his family. More than once said asserted that her husband George was a saint and she did not like personal attacks on him or any member of her family.

What I learned from the book is that being First Lady is a much more difficult job than we might imagine. Every single thing that the spouse of the president says or does is being constantly judged. There is very little privacy or freedom, and yet each woman ultimately fought for her husband to find the respect and love of the people. These women gave up much of their own identifies in a supporting role that few of us would ever wish to endure. Most of all, they were as human as any of us might be in the circumstances, doing the best they knew how.

First Women is a good, easy and interesting read, a page turner that helps us realize the sacrifices that these women make in the belief that their spouses are truly the individuals needed to make our country a fair and just place to be. It’s a great book to carry on a summer journey, to the beach, or just to peruse on a hot humid day.