By Maria Wilhelm
May 18, 1987 12:00 PM

In the course of her six years-plus in the pseudo-office of U.S. First Lady, Nancy Reagan has a) been criticized for the extravagance of her wardrobe, b) been characterized as “a dragon” by her husband’s chief of staff, and c) taken heat from columnist William Safire for making the President look like “a wimp.” Not what a woman would expect who was, after all, promised a Rose Garden—but nothing extraordinary, says historian Betty Boyd Caroli, in the annals of First Lady abuse. According to Caroli, 49, author of First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 36 Women Handled What May Be the Most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America (Oxford University Press, $19.95), the President’s wife has always been subject to constant scrutiny and unceasing criticism. During the Civil War, Mary Todd Lincoln, who had Confederate relatives, was all but accused of treason. Margaret Taylor was charged with coarseness (for allegedly smoking a pipe), Dolley Madison with entertaining too lavishly, and Jane Pierce with unappealing morbidity. Martha Washington, 58 when George was inaugurated, was described as too old for the job, Julia Tyler, 24, as too young. Caroli, professor of history at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, discussed the burden and changing role of First Ladyship with correspondent Maria Wilhelm.

What does America expect of a First Lady?

In a word, perfection. We don’t want her to be too outspoken or too quiet. We don’t want her to spend too much money or too little. We want someone who will represent us well abroad, but who will not seem extravagant by standards at home. We want a perfect mother with perfect children and a perfect family.

Has any First Lady measured up?

No one has been spared criticism. Martha Washington was attacked for having too many white horses draw her carriage, and it was said she served rancid cream with her trifle. Edith Roosevelt, Teddy’s wife, was criticized for tightfistedness. Someone wrote that she dressed on $300 a year and looked it, though she could easily have spent much more. And Eleanor Roosevelt, who is generally considered the most successful First Lady, had some furious critics, people who resented her as too active and too vocal. But no First Lady has been as thick-skinned as Eleanor. She realized that people were going to criticize everything about her—her voice, her clothes, her looks, her views. She was prepared.

Wasn’t Eleanor Roosevelt a striking departure from the First Ladies who came before her?

Lou Hoover, her immediate predecessor, was an early feminist and deserves credit for setting the stage for Eleanor. She gave the kind of speeches on radio that we remember Eleanor giving, and she too is thought to have influenced her husband in promoting women in government. Each First Lady builds upon the one who has come before her; there is an obvious continuum in the position. What is expected of each First Lady reflects changes in societal roles for all women.

How do First Ladies mirror the times in which they live?

In the 19th century there were times when femininity was equated with frailty. Eliza Johnson, Andrew’s wife, appeared in public only two times, once at a dinner, which she left coughing, and once at a children’s party, where she introduced herself as an invalid. She was so reclusive that newspapers in the capital called her almost a myth. Similarly, Jane Pierce disappeared for four years while she mourned her son’s death. We accepted an invisible First Lady then, but we don’t now. Despite her mastectomy, Betty Ford was expected to go out. Moreover, she could talk about her cancer. Yet in 1957, when Mamie Eisenhower had a hysterectomy, the White House wouldn’t even use the word in a news release. She was described as having “an operation similar to those that many women undergo in middle age.”

How has the position of First Lady evolved?

The first five Presidential wives, from Martha Washington to Louisa Adams, were from wealthy backgrounds. Some had served long apprenticeships in Europe, had met royalty and were well-equipped to be America’s “queen.” During the next 40 years, the First Ladies, with the exception of Mary Todd Lincoln and the socially prominent, politically influential Sarah Childress Polk, dropped from sight. These were the wives of a new type of President, the “common man” from the West. It was easier for these women to stay upstairs in the White House than to come down and be criticized for what they looked like or how they served their meals.

When did the next change occur?

The era of the invisible First Lady ended with Julia Dent Grant, who loved the spotlight though she was unphotogenic and slightly cross-eyed and always sat with her face away from the camera. The Grants became the first “star” family in the White House. In the 1870s, Lucy Webb Hayes traveled across the country with her husband and became a national figure as a result. Since “Lemonade Lucy,” the symbol of the temperance movement, most First Ladies have been identified with a project.

When did the First Lady begin to be seen as more than the President’s wife?

In the early 1900s the office of the First Lady was institutionalized. Edith Roosevelt was the first to appoint her own secretary, and people understood they could forward their demands to her. As a consequence, the First Lady became an officer of the government in a way she had never been before.

What did Jackie Kennedy contribute to the job?

Jackie Kennedy is a public relations success story, but she did nothing to change the role of the First Lady. She was a very carefully orchestrated part of the Kennedy Administration and an important one. But Lady Bird Johnson was frequently left to fill in, sometimes at a moment’s notice. Jackie wouldn’t meet with important Democratic politicians or even do the courtesy things that were expected of the wife of the President. She came up with all sorts of excuses about sinus trouble, which she didn’t have, and she used her children as a way out. Her glamour and aloofness made for a contradictory appeal. History professors, polled long after she left the White House, rated her sixth among 20th-century First Ladies. But on the telling issue of integrity, they rated her last—perhaps a reflection of their disenchantment with her when she married Aristotle Onassis.

What role did Pat Nixon play?

Richard Nixon didn’t understand what Jack Kennedy did, that the First Lady can be a powerful and positive influence. Pat Nixon worked hard. She had ideas and would have liked to do something as First Lady, but every time she made a significant proposal, the West Wing sat on it. She was gutsy. I blame the President’s side of the White House for making her a nothing.

How did Rosalynn Carter perceive her position as First Lady?

She saw herself as a very separate and valuable part of her husband’s Administration. She felt justified in sitting in on Cabinet meetings—an unprecedented move, though Helen Taft used to listen outside the door. Her trip to Central and South America in 1977 was the equivalent of Denis Thatcher calling at the White House as Margaret’s representative. She was prepared by National Security Council advisers and was ready to discuss substantive issues. Latin leaders didn’t know how to deal with her.

Is Nancy Reagan part of the continuum you refer to among First Ladies? Has she built upon those who came before her?

Nancy wants very much to protect her husband’s place in history and, through him, her own. She will do anything she can to that end. One gets the sense that her causes are picked up for the moment and for what they will do for the Administration, not out of any deeply felt social concern. If foster grandparents was such a great idea five years ago, why isn’t it now?

How will history judge Nancy Reagan?

Eleanor Roosevelt was something special. Rosalynn Carter was something special, and so was Lady Bird Johnson, who understood that a First Lady could never be a private person. Nancy Reagan, insofar as she sees herself as her husband’s protector without a constituency of her own, doesn’t merit the same attention. She has not advanced the position and has not managed to duplicate the real gains made by previous First Ladies.

How do you expect the role of the President’s spouse to evolve from now on?

The role will surely change in response to a female President or Vice President. It will be interesting to see if the officeholder’s husband will take on the traditionally female tasks—cutting ribbons, dealing with the stream of people who come through the White House for photographs, etc. We’ll also have to examine whether the First Spouse, male or female, could work outside the White House. Carla Voltolini, the wife of the former President of Italy, Sandro Pertini, continued to work as a psychologist and refused to live in the official residence, use the official car or take her husband’s name. We’re in for some changes.