by Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Historian of the National First Ladies Library
Last week, on Tuesday, July 2, 2013, incumbent First Lady Michelle Obama joined her immediate predecessor Laura Bush for a portion of a conference which gathered First Ladies of African nations. Entitled “Investing in Women: Strengthening Africa,” the summit was hosted by the George W. Bush Institute, and held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
The First Lady was in Africa accompanying President Obama on a state visit to several nations there.
While the media gave focus to the light-hearted moments between these two of only six living First Ladies, the purpose of the conference had a more important purpose.
As First Lady, Laura Bush was a consistent and avid advocate for U.S. foreign policy which provided not only monetary aid, but educational resources, professional training and voluntary medical help to citizens of numerous African nations on a variety of health issues, most famously in the prevention and treatment of AIDS in children and adults.
She also undertook several domestic initiatives aimed at improving the health of American women, the most famous of which were public awareness campaigns on heart care and breast cancer.
Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Bush first met a week after the 2008 election of Barack Obama, when the latter guided the former on her personal tour of the family living quarters of the White House.
They came together again on September 11, 2010 to lead a memorial service to 9-11 victims in Pennsylvania.
Earlier this year they were also joined by Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush for the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library.
Historically, the Tanzania meeting of Laura Bush and Michelle Obama was the first time two American First Ladies joined together for a larger purpose in a foreign country.
It was not, however, the first time that former and incumbent First Ladies have joined in common cause to confront a sudden crisis, raise public awareness about a problem affecting a neglected demographic, advocate action on pending legislation, demonstrate support for a national institution or raise funds to establish or maintain charitable organizations.
The first such example of this goes back to July 4, 1848. On that day, former First Lady Dolley Madison accepted the invitation of the Washington National Monument Society to appear at the public ceremony marking the laying of the cornerstone of what would become the famous Washington Monument.
She was joined on the dais by the incumbent First Lady Sarah Polk.
Although the Polk Administration would be ending exactly eight months later from that day, Mrs. Polk recognized that her unique marital status as a president’s wife was of symbolic importance to the public and felt a sense of duty about making such appearance.
This was a strong view shared by Mrs. Madison was then living in a townhouse on Lafayette Square, the park just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.
During World War I, two former First Ladies coincidentally found themselves working for the same organization in voluntary executive positions simply because they shared an expert skill at knitting.
Having left the White House at the end of her husband’s presidency in 1909, Edith Kermit Roosevelt far preferred the private life she shared with the former President at their Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, New York.
When the U.S. became involved in the European war in April of 1917, her role as a regional president of a national organization called the Needlework Guild took on a sense of urgency, there being a sudden need for skullcaps, socks, sweaters and other cold-weather protective clothing to ensure the health of American servicemen who often spent days on end in freezing winter conditions.
It was her fellow former First Lady Frances Cleveland, by then married to her second husband Thomas J. Preston, who headed the entire national organization.
As the Needlework Guild’s national president, Frances Cleveland travelled the country, meeting with regional leaders like Mrs. Roosevelt to encourage the membership to meet the quota of clothing items which the war necessitated.
During the Great Depression, incumbent First Lady Lou Hoover led a variety of efforts intended to mobilize corps of volunteer women into gathering and delivering clothing, canned foods and other donated items to families in need. To this end, she headed the local District of Columbia branch of the Red Cross women’s committee, where she was joined by two former First Ladies then living in Washington, D.C., Nellie Taft and Edith Wilson.
Edith Wilson had first become involved in working with the Red Cross during World War I, when she was serving as First Lady; she likely viewed her effort to help Mrs. Hoover as simply a continuance of that.
In contrast, she declined the many invitations made by Eleanor Roosevelt, both before and during her twelve-year tenure as First Lady from 1933 to 1945, to join her in supporting numerous endeavors of the National Democratic Party’s Women’s Division.
She had feared that assuming an image that might cast her as politically partisan might damage the public support she was seeking for various memorial efforts of her late husband, President Woodrow Wilson.
When the world learned that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, however, Mrs. Wilson speedily agreed to sit beside Mrs. Roosevelt and jointly witness President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration of war, recognizing that her presence symbolized continuity to that day in April of 1917 when her husband had delivered his own declaration of war against Germany.
During the ensuing years of World War II, Edith Wilson never failed to appear with Eleanor Roosevelt at the many Red Cross events which the incumbent First Lady led as an official representative of the organization.
It was perhaps in doing so that Mrs. Wilson eventually relaxed her earlier determination that her public persona remain strictly non-partisan.
Following the death of President Roosevelt and during and after the presidency of his successor Harry Truman, Edith Wilson joined in unison with the overtly partisan but now widowed Mrs. Roosevelt at the large and important national party events, where they were often joined by Bess Truman.
Paradoxically, as First Ladies became more overtly partisan symbols of the political parties which had helped elect their husbands into the presidency, they also more frequently began working on joint efforts with those among them who represented the opposing party, thus providing a stronger sense of national unity.
The first such substantial example of this occurred on June 22, 1962.
On that day, Mamie Eisenhower, wife of a former Republican President, and Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of the incumbent Democratic President, serving as honorary co-chairs met to begin plans for a massive fundraising drive and publicity campaign to finally establish a national cultural center for the performing arts in the capital city itself.
Despite their political differences, Mrs. Kennedy had invited Mrs. Eisenhower to return to the White House to personally discuss their joint effort and the latter had happily accepted. They together posed for promotional pictures and spoke to members of the national press corps on the steps of the North Portico before beginning their luncheon meeting.
It was to establish another national site in Washington, D.C. that the largest gathering of First Ladies took place.
On May 11, 1994, the incumbent First Lady Hillary Clinton was joined by five of her predecessor, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson, in an unprecedented joint fundraising effort to create the National Botanical Garden on the National Mall.
The only living First Lady unable to attend was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who was then terminally ill, and died a week later.
Although various individuals among them would gather through the years at formal ceremonies such as presidential inaugurations, funerals and library dedications and even once to mark the anniversary of Reader’s Digest magazine, this event marked the first time such a greater group came together for a specific national cause, without the Presidents.
No two First Ladies worked more closely and consistently on joint public concerns, however, than did Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter.
Overcoming any lingering tension which had resulted in her husband Gerald Ford’s loss of the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, their working relationship began a year later.
That was when Mrs. Ford joined Mrs. Carter, as well as Lady Bird Johnson at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas.
The rally of this trio of First Ladies was a politically overt demonstration of their support for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Carter continued to make joint appearances for the ERA and Mrs. Johnson also later joined Mrs. Ford at a 1984 ERA rally at the Lincoln Memorial.
Mrs. Carter would also participate in a 1984 Ford Presidential Library symposium hosted by Mrs. Ford to consider aspects of presidential family life.
In turn, Mrs. Ford participated in a conference Mrs. Carter hosted at her husband’s presidential library on the U.S. Constitution and women.
As they had done for the ERA, the two former First Ladies worked together to make a strong national statement about what they saw as the need for national health care insurance to include proper coverage of those individuals with mental health, substance abuse and alcohol addiction issues.
The two women had gained a perspective on the complexities of these issues, developed after years of their own professional work in these fields.
Just before Betty Ford delivered congressional testimony on the matter, the former First Lady also personally lobbied her successor Hillary Clinton, who was then heading the Clinton Administration’s health care reform initiative.
As was true of their husbands, their years of working on public endeavors together led to Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter developing a genuinely personal friendship. This was poignantly illustrated when Rosalynn Carter delivered a moving eulogy for her friend, a request Betty Ford had specifically made before her death in July of 2011.
As Laura Bush and Michelle Obama demonstrated last week in Tanzania when they joked about living an existence as a national symbol, as they face the unique peculiarities of life as First Ladies and then the often undisclosed but eternal challenges they must continue to face as they then slip into their post-White House years, these women alone tend to best understand each other.
This is regardless of whatever superficial differences and identities they public may label them by.
One largely unreported anecdote especially reveals this dynamic, as well as how First Ladies can sometimes even unwittingly join in purpose together to enact change.
In 1968, as her beloved husband lay recovering from one in a series of heart attacks that would take his life a year later, Mamie Eisenhower kept stalwart vigil at his Walter Reed Hospital bedside.
It was only at the insistence of First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, who arranged for a small motorcade to speed her to the White House and back again, that Mrs. Eisenhower took a necessary break and accepted the invitation from her successor to attend a luncheon.
Shortly thereafter, as the elderly former First Lady anticipated a solitary existence as a widow, unguarded on the isolated Eisenhower farmhouse in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, her despondent anxiety became obvious to Lady Bird Johnson.
By the time she resumed her hospital vigil, Mamie Eisenhower learned that the President had authorized Secret Service protection of former Presidents extended to include former First Ladies – at the urging of his wife.