February 22


Why I Chose To Write About First Ladies by Ruby Shamir

whats-the-big-deal-about-first-ladies-coverBack in America’s early days, it was considered scandalous for women to attend parties where no hostess was present.  For proper receptions, like official events at the White House, a hostess had to be there to greet female guests.  And so the position of first lady was born.


As the roles and expectations of women have evolved, so has the job of the first lady.  She’s no longer confined to the Executive Mansion to choose china patterns and floral arrangements, model ball gowns, and redecorate the private quarters for the president’s family. First Ladies are advocates, ambassadors, advisors, managers, hosts, and, of course, wives.  And yet, we still underestimate their role and their influence on matters beyond tending to the White House grounds.  I wrote What’s the Big Deal About First Ladies to give kids a sense of the hidden contributions first ladies have made, even when women’s rights and opportunities were limited by custom and law.


Abigail Adams, for example, made the case early for women’s rights when she implored her husband to “Remember the Ladies.”  Dolley Madison opened the White House for her popular weekly crushes to make the point that the People’s House belonged to all Americans, demonstrating the real power of White House entertaining.  She was so admired and loved that she was the first American woman to get a seat reserved in the US House of Representatives long before women were granted the right to vote.  Frances Cleveland, another ebullient and beloved first lady, snuck in her support for working women by hosting receptions just for them on Saturdays.  Edith Wilson decoded messages from our allies during World War I.  Florence Harding was a staunch supporter of women’s suffrage and the first first lady to vote for her husband. Lou Hoover, the first woman ever to graduate from Stanford University with a geology degree, was also the first first lady to make regular speeches on the radio.


Then, of course, there was Eleanor Roosevelt, who traveled the country and world as FDR’s eyes and ears.  She was his administration’s emissary for empathy and compassion.  His battles for social justice were just as much hers.  Later first ladies benefitted from and contributed to advances in women’s rights.  Pat Nixon’s solicitous international diplomacy, Betty Ford’s frank talk about women’s health, and Rosalynn Carter’s advocacy of mental health issues all provide insight into the priorities and the taboos of the times in which these women lived and worked.


When I worked for Hillary Clinton at the White House during the Clinton administration I witnessed up close the fortitude and wisdom she brought to her work.  In the popular media, she was hailed as an “ambassador to the poor,” parodied as a saint, and scrutinized as a national Rorschach test.  But she was fearless in the face of criticism and determined to help people even after suffering defeat.  She pushed against boundaries of what was considered acceptable for a first lady to say and do, and in the process, she broke open opportunities for women and girls in the US and around the world.


When she traveled to Beijing in 1995, senior members of the president’s staff advised her not to go.  But she knew she had an opportunity—really a responsibility—to use her platform to speak up for the rights of millions of women and girls in China and around the world.  While there, she boldly stated that women’s rights are human rights, something no American official of her stature had ever before proclaimed.  It caused a stir, but once out of the bottle, the genie couldn’t go back in.  Her powerful words, and the policies that they spawned, were quietly grafted onto the foreign policy mission of Bill Clinton’s administration and every president since.


I wrote this book to offer kids a way to begin to explore these substantive ideas.  Even if our history books have long ignored their roles, and our laws excluded them from equal opportunities, women were always participating, always working, always contributing.  First ladies are a big part of that story and certainly a major force in American history.  I hope this book helps kids look beyond the façade of the perfect dress to the brain and heart of the woman who wears it.  And as I work on other books in the What’s The Big Deal About… series, I am excited to develop compelling ways to bring our democracy to life for kids.  I hope these books impart to children a deeper, more nuanced understanding the great country they will inherit.


Author Ruby Shamir (www.rubyshamir.com) is a writer and literary researcher based in New York City. She aided in the researching and editorial planning of many high profile non-fiction titles. Ruby’s public policy and political experience includes working for three and a half years at the White House, two of which she served in the First Lady’s office, and leading Hillary Rodham Clinton’s New York Senate office. Ruby holds a Master’s in Business Administration from the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College and a Bachelor of Arts from Bates College where she graduated cum laude. She lives with her husband and three children in the Bronx.