FLOTUS Showdown

Greatest film of all time? Vertigo, according to the Sight and Sound poll. Greatest album? Sgt. Pepper, says Rolling Stone. Best college men’s basketball team? AP has Syracuse at the top (for now). We live in an age of lists. While list-making is to a certain extent just a parlor game, as well as a handy way to sift through information overload, such a list can be a fairly reliable yardstick for fluctuations in reputation.

The Siena Research Institute periodically polls historians to assemble their rankings of the U. S. Presidents, but many people probably don’t know that Siena also ranks the First Ladies. The latest edition of the First Ladies rankings has just been released, and it has inspired considerable commentary (including this CNN piece). In the rankings’ top spot is Eleanor Roosevelt, who, apart from her famous marriage, was one of the great public figures of the twentieth century. In fourth place, almost exactly 200 years after she and her husband left the White House, is Dolley Madison, often credited with creating the role of the First Lady as we know it.

The Founders loom perhaps largest of anyone in our history, and not surprisingly their wives did very well in the poll, with Abigail Adams (#2) and Martha Washington (#9) joining Dolley in the top ten. Another trend in the list seems to be recognizing the more recent presidents’ wives: the four most recent First Ladies all made the top twelve, including Michelle Obama (#5). Who fared less well were the women in between—that long century and a half between the end of the early republic and the second World War. Lost in the shuffle are some formidable First Ladies, such as Lou Hoover (#17)—or the exceptional case of Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (#14), who hid her husband’s deteriorating health from his own cabinet and, in order to reduce his burden, actually took on many of his presidential duties herself. Historians debate whether this was admirable resourcefulness or simply a political spouse going rogue.

A particularly poor showing on the list can almost always be traced back to difficult personal circumstances, whether it is Eliza Johnson (#38), who was too unhealthy to perform the traditional duties and had to defer to her daughter, or Jane Pierce (#39, last place), whose arrival at the White House was preceded by an almost incomprehensible run of personal tragedy (she lost all three of her children—the last only weeks before her husband’s inauguration).

The way in which Dolley Madison and Eleanor Roosevelt seem to bookend a long period of largely forgotten stories says something about a historical memory that naturally concentrates on the recent history, as well as the enduring prominence of the Founding Era in our minds, but it may also reflect a diminishment of the President’s—and, in turn, the First Lady’s—importance during a significant stretch of our history. “While there were powerful presidents between Madison and FDR, including James K. Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, during most of the 19th century the power of the president remained limited by the strength of Congress,” says Holly Shulman, editor of The Dolley Madison Digital Edition. “While this balance of power shifted under the Progressive Era presidents, it was only with FDR, the New Deal, and the Second World War that the Presidency as we know it took shape.  That supremacy has solidified in the nearly 70 years since the end of World War II.  The era of the imperial presidency has brought to the American public an ever-more prominent First Lady.”

The very interesting survey results may be viewed in their entirety on the Siena web site.