4. Dolley Payne Todd Madison, wife of James Madison (1768-1849)
Much more so than her predecessors, Dolley Madison embraced the role of First Lady as we think of it today. In fact, she pretty much created it, setting the bar upon which all later First Ladies have been judged. While Abigail Adams acted as a private adviser to her husband, Dolley was a very public partner to James. In the eulogy he gave at her funeral in 1849, President Zachary Taylor called Dolley “the first lady of the land for half a century.” It was the first time a president’s spouse had been referred to as a “first lady,” although the term did not become an official title until the 1860s when newspapers began using it for Mary Todd Lincoln. When she died, Dolley Madison was the last public figure from America’s founding generation.
Dolley was born to John and Mary Coles Payne, both strict Quakers, on May 20, 1768. She was raised in the Quaker faith, which taught equality between women and men. Dolley took that teaching with her throughout her life, never seeming to act like she was of lesser status because she was a woman. Her parents relocated the Payne family to Philadelphia when Dolley was young and it was in that city in 1790 that she married John Todd. The Todds had two children, John Payne and William. The yellow fever epidemic that swept through Philadelphia in 1793 took the life of John on the same day the infant William died. Though John had made Dolley the executor of his will, her brother-in-law kept everything from her and left her in near-poverty until she took legal action to obtain what was rightfully hers. Because she was a woman, she also had to fight in court to be the guardian of her own surviving son. Read the rest of this entry »
3. Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, wife of Thomas Jefferson (1748-1782)
Of the first four First Ladies, we know the least about Martha Jefferson. Though she died about 18 and a half years before Thomas Jefferson became president, she is still considered a First Lady because she is the only spouse he had. No portrait of her is known to exist and, like Martha Washington did with her letters to and from George, Thomas destroyed nearly all their personal communication after her death.
Martha Wayles was born in Virginia on October 19, 1748 to the well-off family of John and Martha Eppes Wayles. Her mother died shortly after she was born due to complications from the birth. She was raised by her father, two stepmothers, and tutors. As a child, she was well educated. She became an accomplished musician who played the pianoforte and spinet, and also sang. When she was 18, she married Bathurst Skelton with whom she had a child named John. Less than two years after the marriage, Bathurst became ill and died in 1768.
After the acceptable period of mourning was over, the wealthy and beautiful (all physical accounts of her describe her as such) new widow began attracting many suitors, including Thomas Jefferson. Thomas fell in love with Martha nearly straightaway, however, she did not share the same feelings for him when he first started calling on her. Neither did her father, who did not approve of the lower status Thomas Jefferson’s interests in his daughter. Thomas proposed to Martha in early 1771, but she did not accept. Thanks to an encouraging letter written to him by a friend, Mrs. Drummond, Thomas continued to pursue the relationship. According to family lore, two men waiting outside the Wayles’ house to see Martha heard her and Thomas, who got there before the other men, playing music and singing together. Upon hearing this, they gave up and went home. Bonding over things, such as their mutual love of music and literature, Martha accepted Thomas’ proposal by June, 1771. Unlike marriages of generations past that considered monetary and social reasons for tying the knot over romantic feelings, the couple was one of a growing number of couples getting married out of love. Read the rest of this entry »
2. Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), wife of John Adams
Abigail Adams is one of the most popular First Ladies. She is often referred to as John Adams’ intellectual equal, confidant, closest advisor, and soul mate. Many people are aware of her “Remember the Ladies” letter to John, which she wrote while he was at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia during the planning and writing of the Declaration of Independence. In the letter she famously states, “in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” For urging her husband to consider giving women the vote and other rights when setting the new laws of the land, Abigail is lauded as an early suffragist and feminist.
Unlike the lack of remaining correspondence between Martha and George Washington, Abigail and John wrote over 1,100 letters to each other that continue to provide us with a great deal of information. Being such close partners (John thanked her in one letter for being his partner), the two missed each other greatly when John was away on political business and kept in regular touch. According to some, the couple was acutely aware of the importance of their personal letters and wanted them to be saved for historical purposes. John even bought a leather-bound book to keep his letters from Abigail in and suggested Abigail get one to do the same with his letters to her. The Adams’ letters shed a great deal of light onto the kind of woman Abigail was as well as her relationship with John. Also unlike Martha and George, there is no debating that Abigail and John’s marriage was one full of love, romance, admiration, and respect. Read the rest of this entry »
We posted on Facebook last week about Rachel Jackson on the anniversary of her birthday. Some of you commented that the First Lady’s story was interesting and Facebook user, Susan, said she wished history like Jackson’s was more well-known. Inspired in part by Susan and other Facebookers, here is the first of a four part Throwback Thursday miniseries all about our first First Ladies. We all know about their Founding Father husbands from school, but not nearly as much information about the women themselves is common knowledge.
1. Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (1731-1802), wife of George Washington
Before George Washington, Martha Dandridge was married to her wealthy godfather, Daniel Custis. Daniel’s father was a volatile man who did not approve of his son’s love for the lower-status Martha. He had to be heavily persuaded before finally giving his permission for Martha and Daniel to wed. Though she and George never lived in the White House when he was president, Martha did move to Daniel’s large estate, “White House,” upon their marriage. Martha’s first father-in-law regularly made life difficult for the couple and Martha blamed Daniel’s untimely death in 1757 on the stress put onto him by his father. Daniel died without having made a will, which meant Martha became the executor of his estate and also meant she had more legal rights than women were normally permitted in the eighteenth century. Though she owned 300 slaves and over 17,000 acres of land, and was worth over 40,000 pounds, she lived in a time when women did not manage property or financial matters. Martha began looking for a new man to take over for her and the new widow was an attractive catch. Read the rest of this entry »
Barbara Billingsley’s June Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963) has long been remembered as the quintessential housewife who kept an immaculate home while managing to look immaculate herself in her trademark pearls and high heels. With reruns still playing in the United States and other countries around the world and with a remake of the series, The New Leave It to Beaver, in the 1980s, the perfect image of June has been seared into the minds of millions of people. While some like June Cleaver, others loathe her and give her a lot of flak for being the archetypal 1950s woman the second wave of the Women’s Movement was trying to liberate. If you search the internet, you can find all kinds of things from t-shirts to memes proclaiming people’s disdain for the June Cleaver lifestyle. Perhaps a closer reading of Leave It to Beaver, however, shows a side of June lost in people’s memories and amongst the criticism. Consider the four points below. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s June! You know what that means – summer, nice weather, and outdoor fun! That thought, and the potential financial gains from getting customers to travel from near and far in the nice weather to see his shows, must have at least crossed P.T. Barnum’s mind when he decided June 2, 1835 would be a good date to kick off his very first circus tour of the United States. The circus has long been a staple of American and European entertainment, but it also stands out as an early career opportunity for women (and people of color and people with disabilities or physical abnormalities) in the United States as well as a public example of women’s changing roles around the turn of the 20th century. From bearded ladies to snake charmers to bareback riders to high fliers, the circus was one place where women could escape the social and moral norms of the Victorian era and earn a living doing it. Read the rest of this entry »
Female television game show hosts have been few and far between. Though some women have been able to step into hosting roles, the world of game shows is still largely dominated by men. This week’s Throwback Thursday post is all about three of the women who have made their marks on one of the most popular genres of television since the medium’s inception.
Arlene Francis is perhaps best known as a panelist on the enduring classic television game show, What’s My Line?, on which she appeared regularly for 25 years. While she is well remembered for her appearances on What’s My Line?, she is much less remembered for the work she did on her very own long-running game show, Blind Date. Francis got her first radio role, on the show The March of Time, in 1931. She worked on radio throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and landed the opportunity to host the new radio matchmaking show, Blind Date,in 1943. Upon the decline of radio and the rise of television throughout the 1940s, Francis began to worry that her career as a radio personality would end. However, when Blind Datemoved from radio to television on May 5, 1949, Francis was given the opportunity to host that version of the show as well. She continued as host until 1952, when a new male host stepped in. In taking her hosting gig from radio to television, Francis became the first ever female television game show host. Her success on Blind Dateled to her appearances on What’s My Line?, as well as to her being casted as the first female emcee, or “femcee,” of the popular television variety show, Your Show of Shows. On top of her ongoing work on television, Francis went back to her radio career in 1961 with The Arlene Francis Show, which ran for nearly three decades until 1990.
Merida of the Disney-Pixar film, Brave, is the one Disney princess who many girls and their parents feel actually represents real girls. She looks like a “real girl,” is strong, independent, athletic, able to save herself from situations, and sees no need for a Prince Charming to take her away. When Merida was announced as the 11th and newest inductee into the Disney Princess Collection, many people were happy. However, before her coronation ceremony at Disney World on May 11, Disney gave her a makeover, making many people upset. Disney made her figure slimmer, her hair less frizzy, and her dress tighter and sparkly. They also took away her signature bow and arrows. After considerable outrage, though, Disney removed the new Merida from the princess section of their website in the United States and replaced her with the original. However, the new image still appears on other countries’ Disney sites and on her official Princess Collection merchandise. To many, Merida’s makeover is yet another example of Disney’s long history of upholding and promoting certain beauty standards and their problematic portrayals of gender roles. Some of the characters we remember watching and liking when we were younger perhaps do not always provide the best role models for children to emulate. Check out the examples below and see if you watch them differently now as adults. Read the rest of this entry »
If you like Motown music, you may be familiar with Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records and genius behind the “Motown Sound” that swept the nation and world in the 1960s. But have you heard of Esther Gordy Edwards, Berry Gordy’s sister? Edwards started a co-op to provide money to family members in times of need and, in 1959, Gordy approached his family needing an $800 loan to start a record label. Gordy’s family members all agreed, except Edwards who questioned whether her brother could successfully run a business after a series of taking and leaving numerous jobs. She eventually decided to loan Gordy the money, which he put toward what would become Motown Records. Gordy later stated that his sister’s reluctance to lend him the money made him decide that he wanted her, out of their seven other siblings, to run the business side of the company. Read the rest of this entry »
This May marks the 40th anniversary of the original Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Bobby Riggs and one of the top two female tennis players in the game at the time…Margaret Court? Today, many people are not aware that Riggs played another woman before Billie Jean King, but he did.
In 1973, Riggs, a 55 year old former tennis champion and self proclaimed “tennis hustler,” believed he could make money off challenging a female tennis player at the top of her game to a match. Riggs regularly made bets and used gimmicks in challenging other players, such as adding chairs as obstacles and targets to his side of the court and holding a dog on a leash while playing. He began making comments in the media along the lines of, “girls play a nice game of tennis…for girls” and “we’re going to put those women right back where they belong, like they used to be…around the house. They were home builders. They didn’t try go out and get the man’s job away from them. And now when they can’t even do it half as good, they still want the same money.” Riggs challenged King, the other half of the top two female players at the time, to be the woman to take him on. King declined, so Court stepped up to the plate. Riggs and Court faced off on Mother’s Day, 1973 in a match that received a moderate amount of publicity and fanfare. Court’s nerves apparently got the best of her during the match, and she ended up losing quite badly. After his victory over Court, Bobby Riggs found himself on the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated magazines.
Billie Jean King was a well known tennis great by the time Riggs first challenged her, having won many tournaments and receiving many awards and accolades. In the early 1970s, she began playing on the newly established Virginia Slims tour, the first professional women’s tennis tour. The Virginia Slims tour struggled to receive support in the world of tennis during its early years. When Court lost to Riggs, King felt she needed to redeem women’s tennis and do something to keep the Virginia Slims tour alive. She accepted Riggs’ $100,000 challenge.
After a media circus that included press conferences and a 60 Minutes promotional appearance by Riggs, Riggs and King faced off at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas on September 20, 1973. Unlike the Riggs vs Court match, this match drew in over 50 million television viewers in the United States alone. The atmosphere inside the Astrodome, which was filled with over 30,000 people, started out much like a circus as well. King was carried onto the court like Cleopatra by the male track team of Rice University. Riggs entered the court in a rickshaw pulled by models he called “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.” Riggs wore a warmup jacket that said, “Sugar Daddy.” King gave him a baby pig to represent his chauvinistic views, much like the one drawn on his shirt on the Time cover. Once the match got underway, though, the circus-like air died down. King won the first set and received a standing ovation from the women in the Astrodome. Howard Cosell, who was leading the commentary of the match, stated that many women watching at home must have done the same. King won the next two sets to beat Riggs in the best of five sets match with 6-4, 6-3, and 6-3 final scores.
The significance of King beating Riggs went beyond the single match they played on that September night in 1973. Signed into law the year before, Title IX provided more opportunities for women in sports, however, the men of sports were not always open to letting women into their arena. King proved that a woman could play a sport at the same professional level as a man, and even beat him at his game – women’s tennis was decided in best of three sets matches, while men’s tennis and the match King played against Riggs were decided on a best out of five basis. Billie Jean King has since become a proponent of Title IX and its importance to female athletes in the United States.
Watch below the first of five parts of an ESPN Classic interview and look back at the Battle of the Sexes with Billie Jean King.