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All the presidents' wives
A talk with Stacy Cordery, one of the foremost historians of First Ladies.
Stacy Cordery

Stacy Cordery is one of the country's foremost experts on first ladies. Although this Monmouth College professor started her academic career pursuing theater, she got hooked on history after some correspondence belonging to Eleanor Roosevelt piqued her interest. Now she's written several acclaimed biographies and is the official Bibliographer for the National First Ladies' Library.

Cordery will be in Savannah for a series of talks about first ladies called "Unelected and Unaccountable" at the Coastal Georgia Center Sept. 21-24 at 7 p.m. She's also starting work on a Juliette Gordon Low biography slated for release in 2011. We caught up with her to talk about all the presidents' wives.

What drew you to the subject of first ladies?

Stacy Cordery: I was undergraduate at the University of Texas, and a theater major. I was incensed to learn that the state legislature mandated six hours of U.S. history. So, I looked through the catalog and thought, what class can I take that will get me out of this requirement? And there it was: First Ladies in US History, and I thought it had to be a blow-off course. So I signed up and it turned out to be 12 senior history majors and me. It was a serious class. I learned that this was the first course taught about first ladies given any where in the world. I was in over my head...From that first class, I have been interested in first ladies. All the sudden, from first ladies you can study American culture, American society, American religion, American politics. It's a terrible story because I got into it for all the wrong reasons.

Now that we're 230-odd years into this great experiment, how has the role of the first lady changed over time?

Stacy Cordery: In some ways it hasn't changed at all. Unlike Britain, we have a president and he comes with this partner. England, for example, has the Queen who can do all the ceremonial things, and a prime minister who can do the governing things. Martha Washington figured this out right away. The first lady still does the ceremonial things that Martha Washington did. Ribbon cuttings are an important part of what makes government work. What is changed most dramatically is the more overt role of advisor the first lady takes on, and in that capacity think about Mrs. Johnson's commitment to the environment and how Lyndon Johnson helped her put into legislative form some her initiatives on conservation. Think about how Mrs. Carter was a roving diplomat for her husband. Mrs. Carter sat in on cabinet meetings, which is something that Dolly Madison didn't do. Partly as a result of the feminist movement, and partly as a result of other things, we are more at ease with the first lady being more of an obvious advisor.

What makes a great first lady?

Stacy Cordery: It depends on who you ask. I think most Americans are happy with a first lady who is about a generation behind where women really are, because that is a role dripping with tradition - wrapped in red, white and blue - and living in the iconic structure of the White House. Remember, Hillary Clinton got ahead of where most Americans believed women ought to be. Some people would say a great first lady is one who truly stays in that help-meet role. She keeps her mouth shut, she looks beautiful, she does the ceremonial stuff, but she doesn't force her way into cabinet meetings or the president's legislative agenda. Another group would tell you the very best first ladies make use of that platform to do good, and certainly first ladies have had identifiable causes since Eleanor Roosevelt. There were women who did good things for causes before E.R. but we tend to look at her as the first. Some people would tell you if she doesn't use her situation to make America a better place, then she squandered her time there.

Michelle Obama is in an interesting spot, for a number of reasons, but from the standpoint of first lady, she is following two distinctly different styles of first ladies moving from Hillary Clinton's very progressive, often aggressive stance, to Laura Bush's more traditional role. Where does Michelle Obama fit in the spectrum?

Stacy Cordery: That's a good question. We don't know yet. Truly she is mold breaking because she's African American. The U.S. has a tangled, complicated history with race, and the fact that she's there breaks all the molds. If you take race out of this, what has she done? She's doing a good job raising her children. She's done a good job being a partner to him. She's made it plain that she wants to be the mother in chief, and she's done that. She's done big gestures, coming back early from Europe to be with her daughters. Jackie Kennedy said, if you bungle raising your children, nothing else you do in life matters very much. I guess she's in the middle between Hillary Clinton and Mrs. Bush. That's kind of a cop-out answer.

Has there always been a mystique, in the vein of ‘behind every great man, there's a great woman,' or did some of that mystique follow Jackie Kennedy and the Camelot era? Did that change the perception of first ladies?

Stacy Cordery: First ladies have always been in the spotlight, and have always been criticized. The criticism that Mary Todd Lincoln took would curl your hair. It made her cry. Caroline Harrison, way back, wrote a brilliant letter, where she was giving advice and said something like, ‘you must watch your every step because the rest of the country is watching.' And this is a time before we've got blogs and 24-hour news coverage. Mrs. Harrison was worried about that! First ladies have gotten their share of criticism, and no first lady has ever come through unscathed. The celebrity spotlight is much hotter now than it ever was for 18th or 19th century first ladies, but there was never a time when people ignored them.

'Unelected and Unaccountable'

Where: Coastal Georgia Center, 305 Fahm St.

When: September 21-24 at 7 p.m.

Cost: Free and open to the public