History of the First Lady: Background information when reading Courting Mr. Lincoln

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Courting Mr. Lincoln

by Louis Bayard

Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard X
Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard
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    Apr 2019, 352 pages

    Feb 2020, 416 pages


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History of the First Lady

This article relates to Courting Mr. Lincoln

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FLOTUSCourting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard describes the budding romance between future President Abraham Lincoln and the woman who would become his wife and First Lady, Mary Todd.

Although the role of the President of the United States is described in depth in the US Constitution, the "job" of First Lady is one that has evolved over the years since George Washington was sworn in, in 1789. George's wife Martha wasn't referred to as the First Lady until a journalist used the term for her 40 years after her death; prior to that, the President's wife was referred to as "Lady" (e.g., "Lady Washington"), "the President's Wife," or "Mrs. President."

Frances Folsom ClevelandFrances Folsom Cleveland was the youngest woman to serve as First Lady - only 21 years old when her husband, Grover, started his first term in 1886. Pretty and vivacious, she was a popular figure with the public and press, and was often dubbed the "First Lady of the Land." When her successor, Caroline Harrison, took over, the title was changed to "First Lady of the Republic," but Frances regained her original nickname when her husband was returned to office after the next election. "First Lady of the Land" was subsequently used for the next few presidential wives and also was applied to those who'd formerly served in the role.

Around the turn of the 19th century, magazines and journal articles began to appear which highlighted the First Lady of the Land's formal social duties in the White House, her tastes in decor and dress, and family life. The public was fascinated by the lives of these remarkable women, and consequently this subject remained a popular one in the decades to come. The press gradually started shortening the title to "First Lady" during the early part of the century, but it was still a relatively meaningless phrase that carried no expectations until Eleanor Roosevelt took the stage in 1933. First Lady for the four terms her husband served and hence the nation's longest-serving First Lady, she refused to remain in the background, holding press conferences and public lectures on issues such as civil rights and women's equality. She created a much larger and more significant role for the President's wife, and subsequent First Ladies have attempted to emulate her, using their position for the public good.

Today the First Lady of the United States has her own Secret Service handle (FLOTUS) and her own staff. There's an unwritten expectation that she will choose a cause to champion, generally one that focuses on issues that appeal to women and also has broad non-partisan support, such as children's health or education. Upon retiring from the office, First Ladies frequently write memoirs about their time on the political stage and contribute to the National First Ladies' Library.

First Ladies (from left to right) Nancy Reagan, Lady Bird Johnson, Hillary Clinton, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, and Barbara Bush, May 11, 1994.
Frances Folsom Cleveland

by Kim Kovacs

Filed under Society and Politics

This "beyond the book article" relates to Courting Mr. Lincoln. It originally ran in May 2019 and has been updated for the February 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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