First Lady Responsibilities Pt 3


First LadyProfessor Robert Watson in his 2000 reassessment of the office of the first lady, The President’s Wives, listed eleven fundamental duties of the office. The first responsibility is that of a wife and mother. A total of fourteen first families have had school-aged children while living in the White House. “The value of a first lady’s role of supportive wife and her efforts to a create a home life in the White House are perhaps beyond estimation.” Nancy Reagan was the exemplar of a wife, and Jackie Kennedy was the model of a mother in the White House.

The first lady serves as the nation’s social hostess. She presides over numerous social events where she manages the menu, the guest list, entertainment, and seating arrangements. Many presidential wives employed these events to build political support for their husbands’ programs.

My previous post noted the first ladies’ role as White House Manager and Preservationist. Its domestic staff is numerous, its expanse is great, and the social functions within are numerous. Its management requires a person with significant competence. Mamie Eisenhower was such a person.

The president’s house is old, and it is also a national landmark, Extensive refurbishments were necessary, and all were under the directorships of a first lady. These included Dolley Madison, Elizabeth Monroe, Julia Tyler, Sarah Polk, Harriet Lane (James Buchanan’s niece and surrogate first lady), Mary Lincoln, Julia Grant, Frances Cleveland, Edith Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon, and Nancy Reagan.

Political and Presidential Partner is also listed by Watson as a responsibility. I view this as an inevitable corollary of being a good presidential wife. If the first lady does not have her president’s back, who would?

The President’s Wives enumerates other responsibilities;

  • Public Figure and celebrity
  • Symbol of the American Woman
  • Campaigner
  • Social Advocate and Champion of Social causes
  • Presidential spokesperson
  • Presidential and political party booster
  • Diplomat

A following post will discuss that these are secondary, and not essential, duties.

The material above has been excerpted from Robert P. Watson: The President’s Wives. Reassessing the Office of the First Lady (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000) 69-120.

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