A Host of Demands: On Katie Rogers’s “American Woman”

Lindsay Chervinsky reviews Katie Rogers’s “American Woman: The Transformation of the Modern First Lady, from Hillary Clinton to Jill Biden.”

A Host of Demands: On Katie Rogers’s “American Woman”

American Woman: The Transformation of the Modern First Lady, from Hillary Clinton to Jill Biden by Katie Rogers. Crown. 304 pages.

THE FIRST LADY’S office is a musty chamber in the East Wing of the White House. Art featuring women and children in domestic poses adorns the walls. It is perched on the doorstep of power but distinctly apart from the inner circle, the perfect visual representation of the position: important but without tangible power; central but not fully private or public; feminine but outdated; most of all, unchanging.

The position of the First Lady is absurd, frustrating, and often hopeless. The American public expects First Ladies to be feminine and nurturing while carving out their own sphere of influence. They should achieve concrete goals without appearing too ambitious and restrict any policy interest to education, health, and children. They should have pursued a valuable career before the White House and willingly sacrifice it to serve the American people for no pay. And hosting skills are a must. Furthermore, a First Lady’s effectiveness is nearly impossible to judge because the markers of leadership applied to the presidency don’t work for the partner role. Instead, you know a First Lady is effective when you see it, but don’t bother defining it.

But personalities do have an effect. American Woman: The Transformation of the Modern First Lady, from Hillary Clinton to Jill Biden (2024), by New York Times White House correspondent Katie Rogers, offers a new look at First Lady Jill Biden with thumbnail sketches of Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, and Hillary Clinton and a few additional anecdotes about Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan.

Rogers explores their portfolios, analyzes what worked and what didn’t, and considers their gaffes and strengths. Drawing on these hard-won lessons, she applies them to Jill Biden’s lengthy career as a political spouse and her tenure thus far as First Lady. Colorful nuggets of her own reporting, interactions with the First Family, and observations from their travels are sprinkled among the biographies and policy discussions.

The position of First Lady made more sense at a time when women could not own property or vote, and wealthy white women (the type who became First Lady) did not work outside the home. Their job was to run the household, raise children, oversee staff, and host events to further their husband’s business or political goals. These obligations mapped neatly onto the expectations for a wife anyway, so it was simply a question of scale.

The Goldilocks quality of the office presented difficulties from the start. Martha Washington—about as beloved as any First Lady—wrote that she felt like a state prisoner. She hosted weekly “drawing rooms” on Friday afternoons, where politicians used the women as cover to make backroom deals and solidify social networks. She oversaw state dinners every Thursday evening, which were then private dinners at the president’s house for between 12 and 20 guests, including Supreme Court justices, congressmen, cabinet secretaries, visiting foreign ministers, local dignitaries, and their wives. The Washingtons carefully tracked the invitations to state dinners to ensure that each congressional state delegation received equal attention. In her capacity as a host and helpmate, First Lady Washington exceeded expectations and set the model for virtuous republican motherhood.

Most First Ladies in the 19th century attempted to emulate Martha Washington’s example, concluding that a combination of serving as a host and avoiding public attention was the best possible route. A few women deviated from this course, with mixed results. Dolley Madison, however, thrived on the weird expectations. She threw elaborate social gatherings at the White House, which blended all the characteristics of a modern state dinner, a campaign event, and a networking happy hour. Unlike other First Ladies, who shied away from too much attention, First Lady Madison donned colorful turbans and the most fashionable gowns so everyone present would always know where she was. Her gregarious and warm personality compensated for James Madison’s introverted nature, buoying those she interacted with through her extraordinary charisma.

By contrast, Mary Lincoln went too far in the unsparing judgment of Washington, DC, society. She spent too much money, dressed too flamboyantly, grieved too long and too publicly when she lost a child, and demanded too much of her husband and those around him—or at least that’s what the critics alleged. She also possessed a canny political mind and tracked votes for her husband, visited injured soldiers, and encouraged her husband to pursue abolition to end the war.

But it wasn’t until the 20th century that First Ladies carved out a public space for themselves. Rogers details Eleanor Roosevelt’s pioneering work to bring average citizens’ plight to her husband’s attention. Almost everything she did broke barriers: she wrote a newspaper column six days per week until shortly before her death, delivered radio addresses, held her own press conferences for women reporters, and conducted international visits by herself.

After Eleanor Roosevelt, other barriers continued to crumble at the instigation of formidable First Ladies. Betty Ford offered her outspoken support for the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion, even when her husband disagreed. She also spoke honestly about her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, revolutionizing women’s healthcare access. Rosalynn Carter sat in on cabinet meetings, hired the first chief of staff for the East Wing, and insisted she was her husband’s equal partner in all things at a time when that idea was still radical.

First Ladies’ oversteps have equally shaped what their successors can and cannot do. No First Lady has had an office in the West Wing since Hillary Clinton spearheaded the Clinton administration’s failed healthcare reform bid. Now when First Ladies pursue a policy initiative, they tend to take an East Wing approach. They don’t chair the commission; they participate and campaign on behalf of the official staff.

On the flip side, Melania Trump’s absenteeism and “I really don’t care, do you?” attitude, emblazoned on her infamous jacket, offered a worst-case scenario. First Lady Trump’s insouciance gave Jill Biden much more latitude to carve her own path because almost anything would be an improvement over her predecessor.

Jill Biden focuses on education, both because it’s her professional background—with a doctoral degree in the subject—and because reading and education are safe subjects for First Ladies. She also benefited from her predecessors’ sacrifices. She kept her career, which Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama all left behind and often regretted. Rogers’s narrative of modern First Ladies suggests that each occupant of the office continues to peck new cracks in the glass ceiling of what First Ladies are allowed to do and what jobs they can hold.

One of the strongest parts of the book is Rogers’s discussion of Doug Emhoff as Second Gentleman. Kamala Harris’s husband comes across as open, honest, and accessible, unlike the shuttered quality of some of the other First and Second Ladies she discusses. Rogers includes a quote from Dan Mulhern, the husband of Biden’s secretary of energy, Jennifer Granholm: “Men are doing what women have always done, just as women are doing what men have always done. […] We’re just doing it with male egos.” Perhaps it is fitting that Emhoff’s inversion of gender expectations allowed him to defy the constraints of the office and offer a more fulsome view to reporters like Rogers.

American Woman is at its best when Rogers shares her own experience, whether it’s reacting to a practical joke on Air Force One, traveling to Ukraine, visiting the Bidens’ private home in Delaware, or drawing a raised eyebrow from the First Lady for an unexpected question. I wanted more of this information and less of the Biden-approved answers and family lore. Rogers is personable, relatable, and witty about the absurdities that accompany covering the White House, and she should not shy away from sharing those gifts.

While the First Lady is the most rarefied and old-fashioned of positions, the story is also a remarkably modern one. When Rogers asked First Lady Biden how she juggles her family, her career, and the position’s demands, she noted that she doesn’t think women can have it all, at least not at the same time.

While readers will certainly understand the First Lady better, Jill Biden still felt elusive, which is precisely the book’s underlying argument. If a New York Times reporter on the White House beat with nearly unparalleled access to the Biden circle can only get this close, perhaps the shutters on the East Wing will remain mostly drawn.

LARB Contributor

Lindsay M. Chervinsky is a presidential historian and author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution (2020) and the forthcoming Making the Presidency: John Adams and the Precedents That Forged the Republic (2024), as well as editor of Mourning the Presidents: Loss and Legacy in American Culture (2023).


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