Earlier this year, Jill BidenJill BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble Biden to host Quad leaders in sign of refocused Asia policy First Lady visits schools to discuss COVID-19 MORE announced that she would continue to work as a community college professor while simultaneously serving as first lady of the United States. Biden’s decision, consistent with the past century’s gradual transformation of gender roles and work in society, reaffirmed that women are more than capable of juggling domestic and professional responsibilities.
Biden stands on the shoulders of her predecessors as she redefines the role of first lady in American culture. Too often, first ladies have been relegated to the secondary stories of history, often perceived as serving a supportive yet subordinate role in the White House and their husbands’ presidential administrations. However, there were several 20th-century examples of first ladies who challenged accepted societal norms and modernized the position.
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a daily newspaper column as first lady, donating her pay to charity. Her journalism only scratched the surface of the barriers she broke. Perhaps the most remarkable precedent was her ability to establish a voice independent from her husband’s on a controversial, contemporary topic. Mrs. Roosevelt’s thoughts on race changed dramatically over her lifetime. By the time she served as first lady, she had become an outspoken advocate for federal anti-lynching legislation. President Roosevelt did not want to risk losing southern Democratic backing in Congress for his New Deal initiatives, so he refused to signal support for proposed anti-lynching bills. However, when Mrs. Roosevelt asked him whether she should temper her opinion, he demurred. Eleanor Roosevelt was popular in her own right, and FDR believed her support for the growing Civil Rights Movement and anti-lynching proposals bolstered his standing with the left flank of his party. Mrs. Roosevelt demonstrated that even as early as the 1930s, the first lady could speak with her own considerable, independent authority.
Betty Ford was an unexpected first lady since her husband, Gerald R. Ford, was not elected to either the vice-presidency or presidency. Nonetheless, Mrs. Ford demonstrated that the first lady of the United States could substantially impact mass opinion and behavior. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Betty Ford courageously decided to go public with her condition and treatment. In 1974, women didn’t talk about breast cancer or reproductive diseases in such settings. The reaction to Mrs. Ford’s honesty was extraordinary. Her willingness to talk about breast cancer changed the trajectory of public discourse about it. By the thousands, women scheduled appointments for screening examinations. Utilizing her platform as first lady, Betty Ford single-handedly lessened the stigma of breast cancer and undoubtedly saved a countless number of lives by advocating for early detection and treatment.
Since Lady Bird Johnson, first ladies have chosen programmatic initiatives that often complement the president’s larger policy agenda. Before serving as a United States senator or secretary of State, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE transformed the first lady’s role in public policy. During her first two years in the White House, Mrs. Clinton worked on President Clinton’s health care legislation due to her expertise on the topic. Her involvement with that reform initiative caused some critics to argue she had overreached in her unelected capacity as first lady. However, Hillary did not simply retreat after the push for health care ended. Instead, she reestablished herself as a voice for women internationally, declaring famously at the Beijing United Nations World Conference on Women that “women’s rights are human rights.” Hillary was the first FLOTUS to bring decades of professional experience to the White House. Such a significant change was bound to precipitate a bevy of colorful commentary and backlash as traditional norms were replaced with new realities, but Hillary’s impact on the office was lasting.
Laura Bush’s programmatic focus as first lady was strongly influenced by her previous professional work as a teacher and librarian, leading to a White House collaboration with the Library of Congress and the creation of the National Book Festival. Drawing upon her career and experience, Mrs. Bush also engaged internationally, with a focus on providing better literacy and educational opportunities for women and girls.
These days, Dr. Biden teaches her community college classes online from the White House and divides her time between East Wing duties and paid work as a professor. For much of the American public, her choice to balance a career with her new role as first lady seems perfectly reasonable. Such widespread acceptance is due, in part, to the first ladies who preceded her in the White House and the courageous steps they took to make it possible.
Colleen Shogan (@cshogan276) is a senior vice president for the White House Historical Association and the director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History. She is author of "The Moral Rhetoric of American Presidents" and teaches American politics at Georgetown University. She recently served as the vice chair of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission and previously worked as deputy director of the Congressional Research Service. On May 6, 2021, the White House Historical Association and American University will host a virtual, public symposium on first ladies.