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A tale of two First Ladies: Why Women’s History Month matters

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Women’s History Month is a concerted opportunity to commemorate, and even more importantly, reconsider the consequential role that women have played in our national story. Dr. Jill Biden is recasting the role of first lady in critical ways, yet two recently published books demonstrate that her predecessors in this role also demonstrated critical leadership in the White House that has gone previously undocumented.

Few historians and commentators think of Lady Bird Johnson and Nancy Reagan as kindred spirits. Their husbands’ respective presidencies were certainly dissimilar, with the former augmenting the legacy of the New Deal as the latter challenged the federal government’s growth and power. However, political ideology shouldn’t be the only lens used to examine historical roles and the people who occupy them. Julia Sweig’s “Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight” and Karen Tumulty’s “The Triumph of Nancy Reagan” illustrate that these two seemingly disparate women actually shared much in common. Both books also emphasize the previously understated role of women in public leadership and their influential roles in the White House and American history.

Lady Bird Johnson and Nancy Reagan have been generally underestimated, if not misconstrued, by historians and pundits alike. Lady Bird was perceived as a southern belle, an intellectual lightweight dwarfed by her predecessor, Jacqueline Kennedy. Nancy Reagan was portrayed as a socialite and actress who spent too much money on china and fashionable outfits. The historical record is much more complicated than these oft-repeated misconceptions. Lady Bird prepared and wrote an important memorandum that deeply influenced LBJ’s decision not to seek re-election in 1968. Nancy Reagan edged her husband toward détente with the Soviet Union, carefully negating widely held views that he was a hardliner. Both helped steer the direction of history; their opinions weighed heavily on key White House decisions.

To achieve this status as the closest adviser to the president, Lady Bird Johnson and Nancy Reagan took similar approaches. While they respectively bookended the organized feminist movement, both publicly denied the extent of their power to ensure success. Lady Bird’s political influence was considerable, yet only a careful reading of her previously private diaries and recordings reveals the true extent of her substantive role. During Johnson’s presidency, she was not widely known as a strategic advisor to her husband. Nancy Reagan carefully managed her image in this respect, too. She almost never set foot inside the West Wing, certainly a restriction she purposefully self-imposed. However, her discerning eyes roved the White House, and she often determined who had access to the president and which staffers were diminished in stature or, on occasion, even terminated.           

First ladies fulfill numerous roles during their White House residency. The execution of these roles requires real work that enables the White House to serve as a stage for presidential authority. In doing so, they often compensate for the shortcomings of their spouses. The strengths of both Lady Bird Johnson and Nancy Reagan helped to indemnify their husbands’ own deficiencies. Lyndon Johnson struggled to control his temper and was known to fly off the handle. Lady Bird often served as the peacemaker after such blowups and provided much needed damage control to mitigate difficult situations. As outwardly charming as Ronald Reagan was, he was not a natural extrovert. In fact, his tendency was to turn inward and restrict his inner circle. Nancy served as his ombudsman, with her attention fixated firmly on the ground. This enabled President Reagan to keep his gaze upward, appropriately turned toward the larger governing ideology he was trying to promote. He was able to focus on the big picture, in part, because Nancy’s eyes were pointed in the other direction, always making sure the details were not forgotten. One notable example was her fervent intervention in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal to rescue her husband’s presidency from potential ruin.

Perhaps most importantly, both books serve as critical corrections to the scholarly debate over the impact and influence of first ladies. Because many presidential biographers have historically considered women as afterthoughts, first ladies were routinely under-appreciated or ignored. These accounts improve our understanding of these critical eras by providing a more comprehensive depiction of Lady Bird Johnson and Nancy Reagan’s influence.

Telling the stories of underrepresented populations, such as women, helps to improve norms of democratic representation and inclusivity. Even more importantly, this type of scholarship and active intellectual engagement with our collective history is essential for crafting a more accurate and authoritative version of critical episodes in American history.

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.

Tags American culture First Ladies of the United States Jill Biden Lady Bird Johnson Lyndon B. Johnson Nancy Reagan Nancy Reagan Ronald Reagan

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