I recently participated in a panel event organized by the White House Historical Association that commemorated the 50th anniversary of Pat Nixon becoming first lady, and examined the many contributions, most of which are unknown, of this accomplished and gracious woman.
An independent and adventurous first lady, she reshaped and expanded the role and held the record as the most traveled first lady until Hillary Clinton. Pat Nixon was an activist for more women to run for elective office, encouraged her husband to appoint more women to federal positions as well as nominate a woman to the Supreme Court, opened up White House tours for the blind, established traditions such as garden tours, and as former White House Curator Betty Monkman told us at the panel discussion, Pat Nixon added more than 600 artifacts to the White House collection, more than any first lady before or since her.
She also “championed the lives of the underprivileged, the sick and the forgotten,” as stated in a letter from first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpFormer aide sees Melania Trump as 'the doomed French queen': book If another 9/11 happened in a divided 2021, could national unity be achieved again? Former Trump aide Stephanie Grisham planning book: report MORE for an event two years ago, when Pat Nixon was honored at the University of Southern California marking 80 years since she graduated cum laude from the college. The relatively new first lady Melania Trump sent that letter to be read at the celebration, also stating that Pat Nixon is a “true role model” as first lady who is “worthy of our admiration and remembrance.”
Yet the image of Pat Nixon remains mired in passivity and stereotype. She never sought the limelight, but the problems of her husband and her willingness to stand by him during a difficult period overshadowed her accomplishments and overwhelmed her story as an activist for women, children and families, and for civic participation across our nation.
Some aspects of the role are too difficult to control, especially the “media crucible” as Betty Ford called it, that each first lady has faced since the founding of our nation. It can be challenging for first ladies to break through and be evaluated for their unique experiences. While it is too early to measure the full impact of the work of Melania Trump, it seems that in the political environment today, history is repeating itself with the coverage and understanding of her interests and initiatives.
In my work at American University, I examine the position of first ladies throughout our history and promote the influence these women have had on our politics, policy, and global diplomacy. First ladies are a fascinating topic in American history and culture. Thankfully through more scholarly research and events, with participation from journalists such as Ann Compton and the late Cokie Roberts, first ladies are receiving more attention for their accomplishments and their impact on key issues.
Equal attention is paid to their influence on preserving the White House as museum of history and decorative arts as well as a family residence of elegance and charm. This was a priority of first lady Jackie Kennedy, who founded the White House Historical Association in 1961 as the vehicle to preserve the building and enhance public understanding of its history and its occupants. As with other first ladies who embraced this responsibility, Melania Trump, in remarks at a White House dinner earlier this year, stated her gratitude “to live in this true symbol” of American history and “to play a part in restoring and enhancing” the White House for the public.
Free from specific statutory responsibilities, each first lady can choose how to use her powerful platform and put her unique stamp on the office. Melania Trump did not follow the past tradition of immediately moving to the White House after the inauguration and of hiring staff prior to the inauguration. Many were curious how she would approach her new role. “I will stay true to myself,” she said, thus not defined by the expectations others have of her, the position of first lady, or the staffing of her office.
As the historian William Seale said, “They may be criticized at first for not appearing to be like the women in the past who have held the job, yet they prevail for being themselves, which is what Americans want all along.”
Anita McBride is executive in residence at American University School of Public Affairs. She served as the chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush and now serves as a board member of the White House Historical Association.