Why Do the Spouses of Presidential Candidates Publicly Campaign? Part 1

Ida McKinley campaign ribbon badge. (NFLL)

Ida McKinley campaign ribbon badge. (NFLL)

There is not now, nor has there ever been, any type of formal requirement for the spouses of national candidates, be they husbands or wives, to assume a role in the campaign effort to win the presidency.

A button from the 1964 campaign. (ebay)

A button from the 1964 campaign. (ebay)

There is, however, a public and media expectation which has grown stronger over the last century that a woman married to a man seeking the highest elective office in the country would be the one person who would most strives to demonstrate a faith in his abilities.

And certainly for a presidential candidate in the midst of their campaign, there is no greater priority than being able to meet public expectations.

While a person seeking the presidency is doing so to initiate their vision of improving or at least stabilizing the nation’s standard of living for as many citizens as possible and safeguarding the nation’s standing internationally. Certainly since the earliest forms of visual mediums such as lithographs and engravings, a potential U.S. President has also been considered in light of how well voters believe that person will serve as a standard symbol of the American nation. Even when only men were able to vote, the primary element reflecting the symbolism of a President has been his family.

The Springfield, Illinois home of Abraham Lincoln during a campaign event. Mary Lincoln has been identified as sitting in the upper left window. (LC)

The Springfield, Illinois home of Abraham Lincoln during a campaign event. Mary Lincoln has been identified as sitting in the upper left window. (LC)

Beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 re-election campaign, for example, one of the most popular forms of campaign paraphernalia were large, color-tinted engravings showing candidates at home at the hearthside, in the bosom of their family.

Even if these were technically propaganda in that such romanticized items failed to accurately represent the candidate’s home life, there was public appeal in the idealization of the candidate-husband, wife, children and even often an elderly parent. By intention, these engravings served as visual role models of the American family.

The rapid advancement of technology which afforded actual photographs and then moving images of the candidate and his family may have altered the format this idealization was transmitted but it served the same essential of emotional appeal to voters.

Through the early 20th century, candidates seeking first their party’s nomination and then those chosen who ran in the general election for the presidency maintained a degree of distance from the general public, reflecting a belief that it was undignified to go out and actively ask voters to support them. Instead, newspaper and magazine reported on the policy stand, speeches and personal character of these men in articles often accompanied by photographs which included images of their wives.

The James Garfield family. (LC)

The James Garfield family. (LC)

The advent of the “front-porch” campaign, the first of which was in 1860 when Lincoln welcomed constituency delegations to his Springfield, Illinois home created a natural platform for the wives of candidates to begin appearing publicly.

With the socialization of women still overwhelmingly being domestic, it was considered perfectly natural that the “lady of the house” would be eager to welcome “guests” on the front steps or under the veranda of her private home.

On the increasingly common chance that voters were received in the candidate’s home, it also became natural for his wife to serve as a hostess in the parlor to welcome and thank those supporters of their spouse. It was in such a domestic-political context that women like Lucretia Garfield, Caroline Harrison and Ida McKinley first became known to the general public.

By the time the effectiveness of a candidate remaining on the front-porch of his private home to address massive delegations had reached its end, the long fight to grant women the equal right to vote of the last front-porch campaign. These two turning-points culminated in the 1920 presidential campaign of Republican candidate Warren G. Harding.

Florence Harding speaking to new women voters during the 1920 presidential campaign.

Florence Harding speaking to new women voters during the 1920 presidential campaign. (OHS)

From the spacious and appealing large front-porch of her Marion, Ohio home, Florence Harding began to directly appeal to women delegations, discussing economic, professional and social issues she believed to be of especial interest to them as they headed to the polls for the first time, following passage of the 19th Amendment that summer.

Florence Harding, seasoned in the newspaper business, was also unusually comfortable with the press and spoke freely with them, granting interviews for national newspapers and magazines.

It was an important turning point in the public visibility of candidates’ spouses.

in First Ladies and Campaigning, First Ladies and Politics

First Ladies and Campaigning First Ladies and Politics

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