Jacqueline Kennedy’s familiar, and now, iconic pink a suit worn at the moment of President Kennedy’s Dallas assassination in 1963. (JFKL)
This larger article is adapted from a response to a media inquiry regarding the visual significance of the iconic pink suit Jacqueline Kennedy was wearing at the time of President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination.
The important power of the visual in the political world is unquestionable, increasingly so as each generation enjoys new technological advances in photography. And in no political realm is iconic imagery more scrutinized and central than that of the presidency. Sometimes a single ephemeral image snapped at the right moment can linger in the imagination and have a far greater impact than a speech or a website detailing policy, particularly if it captures an important historical moment.
Certainly the impact of the simple, wordless image of Jacqueline Kennedy in her pink suit and hat just before, during and after the moment of her husband’s assassination in 1963 is proof of this. Pictures showing her in those clothes that day have come to immediately summon the thought of not just a turning point for the Kennedy presidency but the entire nation and its history. This is true for not just those alive and old enough to remember the tragedy, but all those born since.
Other iconic images of First Ladies may not carry as emotionally dramatic a symbolism. Still, since the World War I era when constantly snapping the presidential wives became more frequent and routine by the news photographers who cover the White House, images of certain moments or scenarios have come to stand out as representative images of what these women accomplished and how they came to be perceived.
Here are some of those photographs that seem to do so best with the seventeen First Ladies from Edith Wilson to Michelle Obama.
From the fall of 1919 until the late winter of 1921, as her husband struggled to recover from a stroke, the debility of which First Lady Edith Wilson prevented from being fully disclosed, she vigilantly protected him and his reputation, never away from his side. The only glimpses the public had of him at this time was during carriage rides Edith took with him. This image perfectly captured her role, although the public did not yet know the truth about his stroke – and her role during it,
This image, appearing in a popular weekly magazine, World’s Work, was more than an image of the new and folksy First Lady Florence Harding and her Airedale dog Laddie Boy; it symbolized her passionate commitment to animal rights, rescue and protection organizations, often lending Laddie’s presence to fundraisers. (World’s Work)
Grace Coolidge accommodated the request of more press photographers than had any of her predecessors and came to perfect the “photo op,” The former teacher of the deaf famously posed with the hearing and sight disability advocate Helen Keller and the image was widely circulated in newspapers of the time. (LC)
Comparatively subdued as First Lady compared to her earlier public activities, the general public came to identify Lou Hoover closely with her long-term role as a leader of the Girl Scout movement and she was most recognizable from her frequent photographs in the organization uniform. (HHPL)
Among the many diverse scenes of American life where Eleanor Roosevelt seemingly appeared suddenly, none captured the public imagination as did her donning a metal mining hat and descending by cart into a coal mine. (FDRL)
This 1936 image of Eleanor Roosevelt being escorted by two African-American men as she visited the campus of Howard University was used by segregationists in pamphlets intended to protest her revolutionary efforts towards racial equality; conversely it was circulated among the black community as a hopeful sign of improved conditions. (LC)
During World War II Eleanor Roosevelt wore the uniform of the American Red Cross to visit approximately ten percent of the entire USA Armed Forces o active duty in Europe and the Pacific. She was transformed into the symbol of true “American mother,” according to one popular publication read by servicemen at the time. (FDRL)
By her own determination, Bess Truman was viewed in the one-dimensional role of traditional wife, albeit one unhappy with being in the political spotlight. The most prolific image of her, supportive and serious, was snapped at the moment her husband assumed the presidency upon FDR’s sudden 1945 death and remained uppermost in the public perception of her.
Assuming her role as First Lady at the dawn of the 1950s, Mamie Eisenhower was closely associated with her favorite color pink. While she used it often in clothing and decor often during her eight years, it was her sparkling first inaugural gown in the color the public came to call “Mamie Pink” that became iconic. (Smithsonian)
Few First Ladies better reflected the evolving values and priorities of the majority of American women at the time of their tenure than did Mamie Eisenhower in her role asa devoted grandmother. Many photographs regularly depicted her in this,her favorite familiar role. (DDEPL)
Although she made many visually startling appearances during many foreign trips, it was her regal bearing during her first state trip with the President, to Paris, as she joined him to proceed to Versailles for a formal dinner, which singularly captivated the world’s attention of this new type of modern American woman. (Getty)
Although Jackie Kennedy’s 1962 television tour of the White House was in black and white, and not color, it proved to be the most sustained glimpse of an American First Lady that the people of the country had ever had, and it so seared a permanent impression of her appearance and voice into the public mind that she was ever after easily mimicked and parodied for how she moved and spoke. (CBS)
Just as the image of her pink suit symbolized one of the most violent and shocking events in 20th century American history, Jackie Kennedy’s strong yet sad appearance behind a black veil as her son saluted the coffin of his father was the most iconic image of the world’s mournful farewell to the young world leader. (AP)
While there was no one individual image of Lady Bird Johnson planting flowers or trees that crystallized her primary public project of “Beautification,” which came to be the leading issue with which the public would identify her.
Lady Bird Johnson’s other most familiar role in the public’s mind was being the human face of LBJ’s “War on Poverty” social legislation, most prominently as a key promoter of Head Start. The now seemingly requisite photos of First Ladies sitting on small plastic grade school chairs and reading books to children began with Mrs. Johnson. (LBJL)
In her bright red winter coat, Pat Nixon’s arrival in China with President Nixon for his unprecedented 1972 state visit is perhaps the most iconic image of her as First Lady. Another, some might argue, was her sad expression on the podium the day he resigned. (RMNPL)
Like the Kennedy assassination, the Nixon resignation was viewed as a tragic end of a presidency. As he delivered his final speech as president just hours before his resignation took effect, Pat Nixon stood stoically at his side, a dramatic finale to a role of ultimate loyalty that most believed she best embodied. (RMNPL)
While she looked the part of the authentic suburban mom that she truly was, Betty Ford was also an overt feminist who spoke easily and casually about the need for gender equity. Wearing a large but simple button making clear her support of the Equal Rights Amendment, she redefined the old visual caricature of the “women’s libber.” (GRFPL)
At the time she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, Betty Ford decided to openly discuss the crisis in order to encourage other women to seek early detection through a mammography; the intent of what she was discussing was made all the more powerful by the White House deciding to publicly release the first images that showed a First Lady in such a private moment, confined to a hospital bed. (GRFPL)
Both in tandem with her husband and on her own terms, Rosalynn Carter’s compassionate humanitarianism might have been perceived as more a cerebral act until a series of images were released showing her physical interactions among suffering and dying rCambodian refugees on the Thailand border in 1979/ In fact, the photographs of her are credited with provoking the American reception of the refugees. (JCPL)
The proof of her physical presence in the Oval Office on a weekly basis to maintain a standing lunch meeting with the President especially underlined the political partnership Rosalynn Carter maintained with her husband. (JCPL)
Just two months after they entered the presidency, Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt in Washington, D.C. Although already known for her especially devoted attentiveness to her husband, the new First Lady immediately demanded that she be rushed to his side. This first image of the surviving, but ailing President was the one released to the public and captured the protective and encouraging nature of Nancy Reagan’s role as his wife. (RRPL)
In the course of beginning her national campaign to raise awareness about the harm of illegal drugs and prevent young children from experimenting with them, Nancy Reagan replied to a question from a student about how to best turn away offers of drugs from older children. Her response became a slogan that not only became the banner of her effort but a catchphrase of her era. In dozens of images during the Reagan Administration, the First Lady met with students, spoke at rallies, and attended functions where the phrase “Just Say No” was prominently displayed with her. (RRPL)
Not since Grace Coolidge had a First Lady become so closely associated with a dog as did Barbara Bush and her springer spaniel Millie. Many images were taken of them together at White House events where she brought the dog along as her companion, but this one, with the president’s wife on the distinctive Truman Balcony in formal clothes, beaming a smile as she holds her dog close in her arms, captured the relationship. Used as the cover image for the book Millie “wrote” (with Mrs. Bush’s help), it proliferated. (GBPL)
With her own large family and – by her own words – her white hair and figure, Barbara Bush assumed a public persona of grandmother, a nurturing image that manifested itself in addressing the controversial social issue of the AIDS epidemic by her simple embrace of children living with the virus. (GBPL)
Hillary Clinton’s overtly political partnership with the President was given immediate specificity in the first weeks of the administration when she was put in charge of organizing the effort for a massive health care reform initiative. The rare image of a First Lady testifying before Congress with a professional faculty for policy seemed to best crystallize her role. (WJCPL)
With the greatest threat to the survival of her husband’s presidency involving his adultery, the scandal inevitably blended an overtly public crisis with a private betrayal, Hillary Clinton became the central focus of the world’s attention, her every move or mood or remark reported and analyzed. The simple wordless image of her and her husband managing their emotional estrangement by the link of both holding a hand of their daughter seemed to best represent the period.
Although not directly involved in any of the policy matters related to the war on terrorists in Afghanistan, Laura Bush became publicly associated with the renewal of women’s lives in that country in a wide variety of efforts, from education to professional training. It was a positive gesture undertaken without rhetoric yet a bold and optimistic strike at the limitations that had been placed on women’s lives there as a result of terrorist control. (GWBPL)
Having earned a graduate degree in library science and then worked as a librarian, Laura Bush’s celebration of the book format of the written word, merged with political events when Hurricane Katrina wiped out many small, local libraries – and the First Lady began a national effort to rebuild the structures, believing them to be important not only as centers of learning but community gathering. (GWBPL)
This image of Michelle Obama and England’s Queen Elizabeth hugging each other’s back, taken in the early months of the Obama Administration, seemed to crystallize the new First Lady’s accessible informality even in formal attire during a state visit. (AP)
Michelle Obama working with children in the White House vegetable garden she created as a way of focusing attention on nutrition and childhood obesity; there is no one particular image of her in the garden that stands out in the public mind as much as the action she is taking in them. (WH)