Beyond the Gowns: First Ladies in American History

Explore the lives, struggles and accomplishments of America’s first ladies in this series of lectures by noted authors and scholars.

Being the first lady of the United States may be “the most important unpaid job in the world.”

So observed veteran political writer Carl Cannon in March when he inaugurated Beyond the Gowns, the new speaker series about America’s first ladies taking place at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.

Clearly, Kansas Citians are fascinated by FLOTUS (that’s First Lady of the United States). For his talk on Michelle Obama, Cannon drew an audience of 460. Just a month later Henry Adams discussed his great-great-great-great grandmother Abigail Adams to an overflow crowd that totaled 775, one of the biggest door counts in Library history.

Beyond the Gowns is a spin-off of the Library’s popular Presidential series Hail to the Chiefs, which over the last year has brought more than a dozen historians and scholars to speak about the men who have led this country.

Our fascination with the residents of the White House is understandable, according to historian Robert W. Merry, who last year spoke at the Library about ranking American presidents.

“The presidency is at the fulcrum of American politics, which is to say it’s at the fulcrum of American history,” Merry says. “Add to the mix the personalities of these men and women, their triumphs and failures, their human aspects, and you have an endlessly fascinating topic.”

While our first ladies may not have been elected, they carry undeniable cultural, historical, and political weight. First ladies can help or hinder their spouses’ chances of election, they can strengthen (and sometimes defy) the policies of their husbands. “There’s no way to measure this,” said Cannon, Washington editor of RealClearPolitics. “Politics is an art, after all, not a science. But a candidate’s wife does matter.

“Going back as far as Martha Washington, it’s rare when a first lady is not influential in her husband’s political policies. At the very least, first ladies serve as an adviser, a sounding board.”

Of course a first lady can also affect fashion, even if that is not her intention. We need look no farther than Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat or Michelle Obama’s bangs and sleeveless dresses.

And our first ladies exhibit a wide range of talents and tendencies in the way they tackle the job. Some (Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford) have openly thrown their weight behind causes dear to them. Others (Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower) would have been happy to avoid the spotlight altogether.
“Beyond the Gowns grew out of the extraordinarily positive audience response we received for the Hail to the Chiefs presidential series in 2012,” explains Henry Fortunato, the Library’s director of public affairs, who orchestrated both series.

“We decided to take Abigail Adams’ admonition to heart and ‘remember the ladies’ by examining the unique roles played by first ladies in American history and the influences they had on their husband’s administrations as well as the country at large. Both series seem to have hit a chord and have become among the most popular speaker events we have ever hosted.”

Beyond the Gowns is co-presented by the Kansas City Public Library and the Truman Library Institute, the foundation arm of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence. It is funded by grants from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation Legacy Fund, and co-sponsored by KCUR’s Up to Date.

All Beyond the Gowns events are held in the Truman Forum of the Plaza Branch at 4801 Main St. Events are free. Each 6:30 p.m. talk is preceded by a reception at 6 p.m.

RSVP online or call 816.701.3407.

CategoriesArts Consortium
Robert Butler

For more than 40 years Robert W. Butler has covered movies for "The Kansas City Star." He also reviews current films at butlerscinemascene.com, at seniorcorrespondent.com and on KCUR-FM’s “Up to Date.”

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