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Women's History is American History

Authored By: 
Gabriella Skwara, History Teacher

This semester, a group of Beekman students have been exploring U.S. history and the history of the presidency from a new angle. In First Ladies, we are examining the evolution of the often full-time (and always unpaid) position that accompanies that of the President. At its most basic, the term merely designates the wife of a U.S. President, but it has also always signified a role as official hostess for White House events both large and small, be they social or political in nature. The best First Ladies have capitalized on their ability to wield soft power for their husbands, thus helping to further diplomacy and advance the President's domestic and international agendas (while carefully keeping this power hidden, and ensuring that he got the credit). They have campaigned and negotiated and been the female face of the country, whether or not they actually wanted this role. From the first, these women have dealt with public scrutiny of their looks, dress, education, spending habits, and their abilities as wives and mothers. The position can be a glamorous one, allowing the First Lady to become a celebrity in her own right, but it can unsurprisingly also make the White House feel like “a dull and stately prison, “ as Louisa Adams famously described it. The evolution of the position of First Lady offers a glimpse of the changing roles of women in America as a whole from the first women to receive a college education to the entry of women into politics in their own right. As we progress through our Presidents and First Ladies, we are also realizing how knowledge of these women opens up a deeper understanding of our Presidents and the times during which they served in office. "Forgotten" and/or “boring” Presidents thus gain new immediacy and become more interesting. 

It turns out that the class is also a timely one, as the New-York Historical Society is opening its new Center for Women’s History “the nation’s first permanent public exhibition and educational center dedicated to women’s history” on April 29, 2017. We will make sure to pay their exhibit on the Founding Mothers a visit.

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