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The American First Lady

A Treasure Trove of Little Known United States History

In honor of March as women’s history month, this article will be the first in a series about the American First Ladies.

My interest in First Lady history began when, as a child, my mother would talk about the First Ladies of her generation. She admired many, and I could see how their influence inspired her social awareness and colored her political opinions. I looked up to my mother and respected her ideas, so naturally her interest became my interest. I didn’t get, dare I say, obsessed with First Lady history until more recently when I prepared a presentation on the American First Lady for a program I held locally for my job. Once I opened the door to learning more about this group of women, I found their contributions and actions on behalf of the American people a fascinating topic. These ladies have done a lot for the good of our country, and many of their efforts go unnoticed. Perhaps they didn’t want to outshine their husbands, and perhaps their humble natures kept them away from the limelight, but on closer inspection, their contributions are undeniably an essential part of the American history and culture.

For example, did you know when President Garfield died from wounds received during an assassination attempt, he was attended by four doctors, one of whom was a woman: Dr. Susan Edson. Upon his passing, Congress proposed to pay $1,000 to the three male doctors in attendance and $500 to Dr. Edson. When Lucretia “Crete” Garfield heard of this disparity, she wrote to Congress angrily saying the inequity in pay was discrimination (she used that actual word) and demanded each physician receive the same pay for their care of her husband. Congress listened, and Dr. Edson received her $1,000. That happened in 1881, 39 years before women won the right to vote, and yet Mrs. Garfield took the initiative to speak up on behalf of pay equity, a fight we still haven’t won.

Another interesting First Lady Fact: Would it surprise you to learn an American First Lady, Pat Nixon, received Peru’s highest national medal? The Grand Cross of the Order of the Sun is the highest award bestowed by the nation of Peru to commend notable civil and military merit. The award is the oldest civilian award in the Americas, first being established in 1821. Mrs. Nixon was the first North American to receive this honor, and the only woman. Pat Nixon didn’t make a big deal about this accomplishment. She simply participated in what she called “personal diplomacy” when she personally took humanitarian aid from the United States to Peru after a devastating earthquake. Mrs. Nixon acted in response to the needs of the people, a common theme for First Ladies.

These incredible stories about Lucretia Garfield and Pat Nixon are just two examples from the fascinating lives of American First Ladies.

Too often the successes of these ladies go unnoticed because they don’t draw attention to their accomplishments; but each lady has a story, and each has had an impact on the American culture.

If you ever talk to me, I have endless stories from First Lady history. To me, their history is like a treasure chest full of sparkling and unique jewels. Finding a new detail is like uncovering a brilliant multi-faceted gemstone. The more you look, the more it sparkles.

I don’t mean to sound like I consider our nation’s First Ladies accessories or fancy baubles. Rather, I’m making the argument in favor of everyone taking some time to discover what these women have accomplished for the people of our nation and often for those in nations around the globe. Our First Ladies have done some remarkable things, and even from the very beginning of our nation, the presidential spouse has had lasting impacts on the people. From Martha Washington visiting her husband at Valley Forge, to Dolly Madison’s impact on nine administrations, to Eleanor Rooselvelt’s impact on the world stage, to Barbara and Laura Bush’s impact on literacy, to Michelle Obama’s work for our veterans and children’s health, American First Ladies are the jewels of our country.

Swain, Susan (2015). First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of
45 Iconic Women. New York: Public Affairs. pp. 161–170. ISBN 978-161039-566-3.
“First Lady Biography: Pat Nixon”. The National First Ladies Library. 2005.
Eisenhower, Julie Nixon (1986), p. 254
Executive Office of the President. The White House

K. Lynn McFarlen is the Community Outreach Director for Langeland Family Funeral Homes. Lynn is excited to share what she has learned about the fascinating topic of First Lady history. From social impact to political influence, these ladies have made many lasting contributions to our country and the American people.

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