This article is based on a detailed essay in response to a public inquiry posed about the various forms of influence that Jacqueline Kennedy may have had during her tenure as First Lady.
by Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Historian of the National First Ladies Library
Was Jacqueline Kennedy a role model for American women at the time she was the incumbent First Lady?
At the time of her husband’s nomination for the presidency in July 1960, 31-year old Jacqueline Kennedy was pregnant with her second child. This had never happened before and it struck a chord with many other new and young mothers of her particular generation as well as those women younger than herself.
Just after her husband’s election in November 1960, she gave birth (to a son) and this further solidified the initial impression of her identification as a wife and mother.
It also created a strong sense of empathy for her among the tail-end of those mothers who had children during the so-called “Baby Boom” when there was such a huge population explosion.
Certainly by the time she became First Lady in January 1961, the increasing media coverage on her grooming and clothing style (the so-called “Jackie Look” exemplified by her pillbox hat) emerged as a new convention of “glamor” among taste-makers in the media and widened her appeal as a role model, in terms of lifestyle, to a demographic of women other than her own.
As the Administration proceeded, her linguistic ability, hiring of a French chef, diction and posture, entertaining style and travel to foreign countries were also emulated, as seen by the rising popularity of French cooking, a reported increase in adult foreign language classes offered at community colleges, a shift towards round dinner tables away from square and rectangular ones, and the airline industry’s new focus on the “glamor” of overseas trips in its advertising.
Finally, in coming from the elite class, and afforded a higher education, she also unwittingly became an “aspirational” figure of that era, one whose privilege might not be easy reached by a majority of Americans but which others could strive to emulate.
Did Jacqueline Kennedy change the role of First Lady so that her successors felt the role now had new responsibilities they should assume?
As was seen previously in First Lady history, an especially popular one tends to serve as the point of reference for the immediate generation of her successors. This has been dramatically true of Jacqueline Kennedy.
Previously, Eleanor Roosevelt had made extensive overseas trips, but those were during World War II when a certain license for assuming unprecedented responsibilities was permissive, and she went as a representative of the Red Cross to visit American servicemen in the European and the Pacific theaters. Jacqueline Kennedy went to foreign countries as a representative of the United States.
Pat Nixon especially followed this precedent, going to three African nations, and two South American nations, as well as accompanying her husband to several Asian nations in a diplomatic role.
Rosalynn Carter undertook serious policy discussions on her solo trips to South and Central America, and addressed a refugee crisis in Cambodia.
Nancy Reagan visited a series of Asian nations on behalf of her drug education program. Barbara Bush assumed a ceremonial role on her few brief trips independent of her husband.
Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton undertook numerous foreign trips, often related to aid programs in developing nations as well in the capacity of goodwill ambassadors.
Most important to the shift which came as a result of her tenure in the White House was her “restoration” of the mansion.
This involved several components. The primary focus was her refurbishing of the White House public rooms with antiquities, intended to specifically reflect several of the early presidencies in the era after the founding of the nation.
To maintain this effort, she established the job of White House Curator, a Fine Arts Committee and the White House Historical Association, which is charged with the active collection of such objects and ongoing fundraising.
In carrying out this effort, Jacqueline Kennedy established the modern concept of a First Lady’s “project,” or area of especial concern which addressed aspects of national life or the needs of an ignored demographic or social problem. First Ladies before her had done this, as early as Dolley Madison and Mary Lincoln. However, in the media age of the 1960s, it became as established an expected part of the role as were the traditional ones of presidential spouse and hostess.
Since then, each First Lady has fulfilled this role.
Lady Bird Johnson took the model created for this by Mrs. Kennedy and established a Committee for a More Beautiful Nation’s Capital, and then expanded this to focus on the entire nation, merging elements of urban renewal, indigenous planting, environmental protection legislation, re-foresting, land conservation, and corporate responsibility for local community areas.
Pat Nixon gave similar focus to voluntary organization work through the quasi-federal VISTA program. Betty Ford focused on the general subject of women’s issues, addressing issues of legal civic equality among the genders, women’s history, and women’s health issues.
Rosalynn Carter focused primarily on mental health reform, Nancy Reagan on preventing drug experimentation among children and young adults, Barbara Bush on eradicating adult illiteracy, Laura Bush on encouraging an increase in reading, Michelle Obama on childhood obesity. Hillary Clinton assumed numerous “projects” as First Lady but is most associated with the health care reform act of 1993.
Did Jacqueline Kennedy inspire American women to become less traditional?
Jacqueline Kennedy’s persona as a woman was more complex, rather than a juxtaposition of traditional vs. non-traditional. She defined herself in traditional terms, as a mother, wife and hostess, yet she also made clear she felt a responsibility to the public as First Lady which led her to both address, in words and deeds matters that would hardly be considered traditional.
Ultimately, she balanced a keen family loyalty to her family with a sense of civic duty to her nation. Her efforts in historic preservation of Lafayette Square, support of new and experimental performing arts provided an example of a woman who, though she may have not held down a salaried position outside of the home, had chosen to involve herself in activities intended to benefit the general population. It was what might be called a “traditional activism.”
As she began to travel extensively in foreign countries, she encountered reporters native to those countries who asked her view on social issues being addressed in the U.S
In Pakistan, for example, she was asked about how Americans then opposing civil rights might react to the interest she was expressing about the different faiths and cultures she was encountering on her trip. While she chose her words carefully to express a vague statement, she also made it clear how viscerally she opposed any type of bigotry or intolerance. She also weighed in on the threat of nuclear war and the need for disarmament which her husband was advocating.
While no data suggests how closely American women followed these rare expressions of her political opinion, her reputation as internationally-minded was established. Coming into the national consciousness in the period just prior to what was initially perceived as the more radical “feminist” movement, the example of Jacqueline Kennedy’s intelligence and willingness to express her convictions outside of traditional roles like wife and mother may have proved especially appealing to more conservative elements of the demographic of American women.
Did President Kennedy perceive his wife as his equal during the Administration?
Neither President Kennedy nor Mrs. Kennedy perceived her as possessing his talents as a public speaker and political strategist, or any degree of the expertise in domestic or foreign policy necessary in fulfilling his presidential duties. As a member of the House and Senate Kennedy did not perceive women, generally, as equals in the profession of elective politics or as policy experts on whose advice he relied, or sought; he followed the era’s conventional stricture of women being socialized to assume responsibility for the home. However, he did acknowledge that his wife possessed skills which he did not, especially when she expertly translated French foreign policy journals which analyzed intricate military and political factors involved in France’s failure to re-colonize Indo-China. He also came to rely on her literary ability to give shape to his message with inspiration quotes which her vast knowledge of European history provided. On at least one known occasion, he entrusted to her the task of composing one of his public political statements, on the 1956 presidential candidacy of Adlai Stevenson.
During the initial period of his presidency, John F. Kennedy’s reliance on Jacqueline Kennedy was for emotional support, but in providing this for him following the Bay of Pigs debacle just three months after his presidency began, he also came to recognize her potential as a sounding board, a person with whom he could muse over what faced him. When she expressed an interest in understanding the details of the crises he faced, he gave her access to classified cables and other documents but didn’t want to review it with her all verbally. In her presence, he sought relief.
Following their first Europeans tour to Paris, Vienna and London in late April and early May of 1961, however, President Kennedy also witnessed her skill as a personal diplomat, who could socially regulate the often strident Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (see picture above), flatter subtly the egotistical French President Charles DeGaulle and participate in general discussions on the Cold War with David Ormsby-Gore, the British Ambassador to the U.S. Her also relied on her astute assessments of the personal qualities of important figures in the Defense Department and the Soviet Politburo Most importantly, he recognized the enormous asset she was to him and his Administration simply for her mass appeal both domestically and globally.
Jacqueline Kennedy herself later reflected that it wasn’t that she didn’t have astute opinions, drawn from study and knowledge of issues, nor that she was unwilling to express them to her husband; it was more often a matter of him not seeking her opinion. She suggested that she was not submissive by nature when it came to emphatically making her views known, only that her husband often expected her to defer to his decisions and judgement on matters both personal to them and relevant to his work as President.
Lastly, it was Jacqueline Kennedy who influenced the President to recognize the value of some form of federal aid to the performing and fine arts, be they museums or educational programs.
Was Jacqueline Kennedy raised in a way which encouraged independence and confidence in her?
From all accounts, Jacqueline Kennedy was so highly individualistic in her interests and opinions, even as a grammar school student, that she frequently defied and came into conflict with authority figures who denied or disagreed with her. This was such a central characteristic of her personality that it is unlikely that anyway in which she was raised could manage to quell it. However, she was raised with an ethos of etiquette in which she was expected to follow a polite and mannered form. While she did conform to this strictly and even assumed it in all her social interactions, she also admitted to being subversive of it, often responding or behaving in a way which indicated that her own values superseded all else. Her mother was especially rigorous in seeking to enforce her into regulation of the traditional code of conduct, yet also sought to instill confidence in her. This often created conflict. For example, her mother urged her to enter an important writing contest and excel in the submission of materials required. Although she was proud that Jacqueline Kennedy achieved the winning prize of the contest, she then forced her not to accept the promising position, even though it was in line with her daughter’s professional aspirations.
Did Jacqueline Kennedy have a positive impact on the U.S.?
The answer to this is complex and perhaps subjective. One can certainly evidence that Jacqueline Kennedy consciously sought to raise the level of American performing and fine arts, hoping to either renew in citizens a pride in both historic and contemporary American culture or to inspire it in those previously unaware of this “flowering,” as she put it. Likewise, she sought to raise the standard perception of the United States, its people and culture among foreign nations which had previously taken a dismissive view of it.
Perhaps no other public role she played, however, would come to serve the nation more than as the widow of the assassinated President in November of 1963.
She masterfully orchestrated his entire public funeral, the first event to be simultaneously broadcasted live around the world by the period’s new technology of videotape. Despite her shock and grief, she conveyed a live-action image of graceful gestures and movement, walking through the streets of Washington as she led the funeral procession and world leaders to the church for his funeral mass. She never faltered during the walk but rather held her head high and stoically, suggesting a dignified strength.
The visual impact of her comportment was hailed around the world. many believing she helped millions of people to process the grief by her example.
In remaining committed to the work she did during her White House years on the issue of historical preservation of public buildings, as a former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis became the most visible figure in a fight to save New York City’s Grand Central Station. A legal challenge to this went to the Supreme Court in 1978, and she returned to Washington to rally public support for the side of preservation. The court’s verdict upheld the earlier decision against the owner of the property, thus strengthening the argument for protecting shared places and buildings for the collective role they play in American society.
In the years since her death in 1994, Jacqueline Kennedy appears to have achieved an almost mythological role in the imagination of the United States and other nations, not unlike the way other singular figures such as Napoleon or Cleopatra linger as iconic emblems of particular historical periods.
With the power and wealth of the United States leading the world in the 20th century, Jacqueline Kennedy has since come to symbolize the mid-century era of the “American Dream,” be it as a wife and mother, a modern educated woman who felt free to behave independently, or even as a consumer of the luxury items which suddenly even middle-class Americans felt they could obtain for the first time.
All of this seems encapsulated by the phrase she herself introduced as a short-hand for the brief three-year Kennedy Administration, dubbing it “Camelot.” Although she intended to associate the word with her late husband, because she worked for many years to ensure his memory was sustained in the public mind, it may be that it is Jacqueline Kennedy more than John F. Kennedy who became the more emotionally accessible symbol of that time.