This article originally appeared in the Daily Eastern News.
Each first lady has been very different, said a professor at a lecture titled “First Ladies as Activists” in the Tarble Arts Center Thursday.
Sharon Alter, a retired professor of political science and history from William Rainey Harper College, discussed the trials and accomplishments of the first ladies, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Each first lady has their own niche, her personality, her relationship with president and is influenced by the politics of the time,” Alter said.
Alter said first ladies do not have any legal standing in the U.S. government, instead historians have said first ladies represent a cultural symbol of feminity.
A historian said first ladies must contribute but not meddle, be loyal but not blind, Alter said.
“The first ladies are damned if they do and dammed if they don’t,” Alter said. Betty Ford, the first lady married to Gerald Ford, spoke her mind in public, Alter said.
“She had a style of her own,” Alter said.When asked about the Roe vs. Wade decision, Ford said the decision was a great decision and even was commented on saying the decision may lower the divorce rate, Alter said.
Betty Ford had said her only regret was not being able to help get a woman nominated to the Supreme Court.
Betty Ford helped pave the way for first lady activists and showed the growing independence of women of the 1970s, Alter said.
Rosalynn Carter, Jimmy Carter’s wife, was more involved in public policy than other first ladies, Alter said.
Alter continued that Rosalynn Carter was the first lady to testify in front of a congressional meeting and she would even sit in on cabinet meetings. Criticism against her was nothing but raw sexism, Alter said.
Then, Alter spoke about Nancy Reagan, who focused more on her husband, especially in the beginning of Reagan’s term. She did not have a public service program at first.
She refused to be involved in legislation, which the press referred to as the “Nancy Problem.” Though later in Reagan’s term, she would focus on drug prevention.
Barbara Bush symbolized a mother and had a down-to-earth manner, Alter said. Then, there was Hilary Rodham Clinton, who met with a total of 130 U.S. lawmakers personally and openly advised the president.
The lecture was sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council.