CHARLES BEEM

Writer and Historian 

  • “The Uncrowned Queen: The First Lady of the United States”

         All that is missing is the crown. In the fall of 2020, American cable network CNN broadcast a documentary series entitled First Ladies, with episodes on Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Michelle Obama. As I watched this series, it occurred to me that the American first lady is simply a republican version of a queen. In pursuing their “queenly” imperatives, these six first ladies earned admiration for their gender specific activities while attracting criticism and sometimes outright hatred for their efforts to venture beyond socially acceptable behavior for women. Like queens throughout history, first ladies can be seen to play to, or react against, a gender specific form of “queenly playbook” which I had identified in my recent book Queenship in Early Modern Europe (2019).  

         Throughout recorded time, all complex human societies have informally recognized the role of female consort to a male leader or head of state. Historically, queenship evolved as a complementary role, the yang to the yin of kingship. Monarchy always functioned nicely as a binary; the balance of masculine and feminine within the marriage of king and a queen created a representational whole for public consumption, politicizing the spiritual concept of marriage as the rendering of one flesh, as Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain masterfully did at the dawn of the modern era.  Ideally, a king exhibited male-gendered qualities such as rationality, decisive leadership, and military valor, while demonstrating a paternal care for their subjects that their coronation oaths required of them. Queens complemented these male gendered qualities, earning prestige in other equally gender specific public roles by embracing Christian piety and compassion and playing the role of intercessor between king and subject.  Those queens in control of their incomes also built and maintained churches and monasteries, schools and orphanages, and lavished patronage on painters, architects, musicians, scholars, and scientists, while performing in public rituals that bolstered the authority of their husband. 

         On a more aesthetic level, queens presided over the royal court, as first ladies do for the White House, where they sported the latest in apparel, hair styles, and other accessories that often became widely imitated by the female population.  Queens could also exercise political power if they were so inclined, and their relationship with their husband would allow it. Behind closed doors, in the bedchambers of royal palaces all over the world throughout historical time, queens had access to the royal ear, allowing them to influence the flow of patronage, the conduct of foreign policy, and the enrichment of their natal families.  Our six CNN first ladies all reflect these basic categories of the “queenly playbook,” which include political helpmate, social arbiter, fashion icon, and champion of charitable causes and social justice pursuits.

         Queens throughout history enjoyed political partnerships with their husbands. Most were ‘under the radar” with queens exercising their power behind the scenes without drawing public attention; Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, and Barbara Bush were this kind of first lady, and accordingly did not get an episode of the series devoted to them! But some queens emerged as high-profile political partners in their husband’s kingships.  The sixteenth century Bona Sforza of Poland, and the eighteenth-century Caroline of Ansbach of Great Britain, Louisa Ulrica of Sweden, and Elisabeth Farnese of Spain were all early modern versions of Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Reagan, and Hilary Rodham Clinton, first ladies whose involvement in politics was overt and subject to robust contemporary criticism.  But in the case of Roosevelt and Johnson, as it was for Caroline of Ansbach, who mostly enjoyed contemporary recognition as a “good queen,” their charitable and social justice efforts transcended their expansion of appropriate gender roles for women. But Bona Sforza of Poland, like Hilary Rodham Clinton, despite her dedication to improving the lives of her subjects, failed to control the narratives of their queenships. Bona faced an actual rebellion against her, the “Chicken War” of 1538, led by a nobility incensed by Bona’s influence over her husband as well as her business acumen, which made her a substantial landowner in Poland. Bona also introduced modernizing reforms in agricultural and industrial production in her husband’s kingdom which was of benefit to her subjects, but her historical reputation is that of a rapacious, power hungry virago. 

         Such a description could easy apply to Hillary Rodham Clinton, perhaps the most maligned woman in modern American history, who efforts to expand health care coverage and her global efforts on behalf of the rights of women were overshadowed by political scandals such as the Whitewater affair and her husband’s sexual misadventures.  Nancy Reagan also had a frosty relationship with the press, as Elisabeth Farnese had with her Spanish subjects, but both had larger goals in mind; for Farnese Spanish political and economic rejuvenation and for Reagan a groundbreaking nuclear arms treaty for her husband “Ronnie” Reagan, which cemented his reputation as a peacemaker whose efforts helped bring the Cold War to an end.  While Nancy Reagan’s use of astrologers and her ham-handed interventions in cabinet shake-ups did little to shore up her popularity, no one could deny her devotion to her husband, as evidenced the “the gaze,” the adoring look she always displayed when her husband spoke in public.

         But Nancy Reagan was able to mitigate her bad press by engaging in republican versions of “good works,” such as her “Just say NO to drugs” campaign.  Lady Bird Johnson also was very evolved in ecology well before ecology became “cool” in the 1970s, as exemplified by her “keep America beautiful” campaign, while Michelle Obama put much effort into fighting childhood obesity and raising awareness for healthy eating styles. But the queen of social justice first ladies is undoubtedly Eleanor Roosevelt, who fought for the rights of women and racial minorities, and after her husband’s death in 1945 emerged as a global figure for human rights with her work founding the United Nations.  My own mother, born in 1938, considers Eleanor Roosevelt a kind of secular saint to this day, which places her in the same category of saintly queens such as the medieval Elisabeth of Hungary and the early twentieth century Empress Zita of Austria- Hungary.

          But no one ever accused Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton of being either attractive or fashionable women.  But Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, and Michelle Obama were all admired for their looks and their fashion tastes, putting them in the same category of queens such as Anne Boleyn, Henrietta Maria, Anne of Austria, and Elizabeth Petrovna of Russia. Pretty, chic, and cultured (she spoke exquisite French), Jackie Kennedy remains the most glamorous of first ladies, who also worked to improve the aesthetic appeal of the White House. Her conduct as a widow following John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 made her admired all around the world. Nancy Reagan was also very good at marketing herself, having been a Hollywood actress when she married fellow actor Ronald Reagan in the early 1950s; their White House galas were always filled with movie stars, with one particular highlight being the 1985 dance between Diana, Princess of Wales, and actor John Travolta, which allegedly drew the ire of Prince Charles, who found his wife’s global popularity hard to take. 

          Michelle Obama made sure she never overshadowed her husband as Diana did for Charles.  Obama, in fact, fits all the categories of queenly achievement and enjoyed a popularity perhaps even greater than her husband Barack Obama, himself a perennially popular and respected figure in contemporary America. Perhaps because she enjoyed the hindsight that her predecessors did not, she threaded the needle of appropriate first lady behavior with particular finesse. Although a trained lawyer, like Hillary Clinton, she embraced the public image of wife and mother.  Early on in her husband’s first campaign for president, she trained herself to be a compelling public speaker without being labelled an “angry” black woman.  As an attractive and physically fit woman, she embraced the role of fashion icon in the tradition of Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan, and the pursuit of charitable and social justice issues in the tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, and Hillary Clinton.  But unlike those three, the extent of her political influence over her husband remains beyond the knowledge of the American public, in the grand tradition of most first ladies, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump.



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