|"The White House," 18th century engraving|
Frontispiece of Ladies of the White House by Laura C. Holloway (1869)
No one ran for First Lady this year.
It was the first time since 1924 that the wife of a presidential candidate did not regularly join her husband on the campaign trail. Obviously Bill Clinton isn't a wife, and Melania stayed at home most of the time.
Quite a break with tradition. Bess Truman made no secret of the fact that she just wanted to play bridge with her friends in Independence, Missouri. But she traveled with Harry on a whistle-stop tour.
Mrs. Hoover and Mrs. Coolidge campaigned, as well. Their husbands may not rank high among American presidents, but Lou and Grace were smart, engaging women.
Since 1900, most First Ladies have been involved in some way with the wider world. Even President Harding’s wife, who consulted an astrologer and was known derisively as “The Duchess” – even she devoted herself to the veterans of the Great War who were hospitalized at Walter Reed Hospital.
Nonetheless, there are a few precedents for Melania’s near invisibility. They’re back in the dark, rainy first half of the nineteenth century. One might not recognize the names outright, for these women are pretty obscure.
They rarely left the second floor of the White House, just as Mrs. Trump infrequently leaves the top floor of Trump Tower.
Margaret Taylor, Abigail Fillmore, and Jane Pierce never wanted their husbands to run for president. And they definitely didn’t care to move to the capital city, flourishing at the edge of a swamp.
|Margaret Taylor, wife of President Zachary Taylor who died in office in 1850. |
It was said that Washington residents heard her keen
from a second floor window of the White House.
By 1850, notwithstanding the summertime mosquitoes and damp winter chill in the president’s house, Washington, D.C. captivated many a visitor. The city appealed to diplomats and journalists; men and women who reveled in politics. None other than the vivacious Dolley Madison (wife of the fourth president) set the tone and made things sparkle. She hosted brilliant salons and encouraged the White House ladies who followed her to step lively.
Dolley was a masterful doyenne. She knew how to ignite debate, cultivate conversation, and most of all make newcomers feel at home.
However, Dolley died in 1849, the year before Mrs. Taylor arrived at the executive mansion.
It wouldn’t have mattered to Margaret, Abigail, and Jane, who brushed off society and politics and participated in few White House events.
To be sure, they had reasons.
Jane mourned the loss of her 11-year old son who died before her eyes in a train accident less than two months before President Pierce was sworn in as president.
|Jane Pierce, wife of President Franklin Pierce;|
she dressed in black for the rest of her life.
Margaret grieved for her daughter, Sarah, the first wife of Jefferson Davis, who died of malaria while visiting Louisiana during “fever season.” The Taylors never forgave the future president of the Confederacy for bringing her there.
And Abigail’s health was frail.
The three women stayed upstairs, read the Bible, and welcomed a few friends to the parlor. They sent their daughters and nieces downstairs to receive visitors and preside over dinners, just as Melania’s stepdaughter, Ivanka, may act for her.
Mmes. Taylor, Fillmore and Pierce were cast from the antebellum feminine ideal that historians refer to as “the cult of true womanhood,” which was fostered by a patriarchal system. The virtues of “true women” were piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.*
|Abigail Fillmore, wife of President Millard Fillmore.|
She died of pneumonia three days after attending President
Pierce's inauguration during a snowstorm.
Mrs. Trump conforms, in part, to the type. Her adventures in modeling have taken her where no First Lady has gone before. So we can cross off piety and purity.
She is, however, conspicuously submissive and stays largely at home, a secure place with little exposure to the public arena.
Of course she should do what she wants, especially since she has a young son.
It’s just an odd juxtaposition of a woman whose rise has been so thoroughly 21st century, with three dusty ladies of long ago.
|The American Woman's Home by Catharine Beecher|
and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869), idealized the
"cult of true womanhood."
*Historian Barbara Welter coined the term in her 1966 article, The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860.