Nearly all First Ladies have been ‘social’ partners of their husbands, arranging social events, having dinners with people invited who could advance their husbands’ careers. Sarah Polk, however, was one of the early First Ladies who was also a ‘political” partner: advising her husband, helping to craft and edit, and then strategize the ways in which legislation that supported the administration’s goals could be enacted. In spite of assuming a “new” kind of role as First Lady, Sarah Polk was admired by both the men and women of Washington…something of a feat in a city where the President and spouse are often subject to intense scrutiny and often, criticism.
The purpose of this lesson is to acquaint students with the political and public role of the First Lady by having them assess the lives of all the First Ladies in terms of whether the First Lady’s role was to “fit in” or to “push the envelope” a bit.
Access to the Internet; Access to print materials; Paper and pens or pencils, or word processing capability; PowerPoint presentation software (optional); Or, art supplies, including tag board for posters.
1. Begin the lesson by engaging students in a discussion about the public role of the First Lady, particularly the degree to which they think the First Lady has a legitimate political role, and, if so, what it is. Ask them if they know about Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, or her White House garden, or her work with military families. If no one is aware of these, ask students to do some research on them.
2. Then, divide the class into six groups, and assign each group to research the lives of seven (7) First Ladies (the sixth group will have 8 First Ladies), using the websites listed below, as well as other websites and print materials that are available. As they research their subjects, students should look for the following:
3. When this research is completed, ask each group to place its First Ladies in one of two categories: “Fitting” or “Feisty.” Bring the class together and have each group share its findings, including its assessment of the nature of the First Ladies’ role, and their rationale for placing each First Lady in one category or another.
- Did/Does the First Lady have an observable political role?
- What was the First Lady’s public image?
- Did the First Lady enjoy her position? Why or why not?
- Did the First Lady have a job or a profession before her marriage?
- What was the First Lady’s relationship to the President in terms of public policy?
Extending the Lesson:
This lesson can be extended by asking students to prepare two PowerPoint presentations, one for the “Fitting” category, and one for the “Feisty” category. Or, students could make posters, showing several First Ladies from each category on a poster.
Sources & Resources:
Boller, Paul F., Jr. Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Gould, Lewis L., ed. American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Mayo, Edith P. The Smithsonian Book of the First Ladies: Their Lives, Times, and Issues. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996.
Rosebush, James S. First Lady: Public Wife. New York: Madison Books, 1987.
First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image.
Videos from First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image
America's First Ladies from The History Channel..
Biographies of the First Ladies from the National First Ladyies Library.
This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.