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Unusual For Their Time: America's First Ladies

American First Ladies are some of the most powerful unpaid and unelected women in the world. Many of their  accomplishments have gone unrecognized. We discuss how these women were partners in the nation’s leadership from the very beginning, and in many instances, continued their leadership after leaving the White House. Which first lady do you find inspiring? 
 
 
Airdate: Wednesday, March 31, 2021
 

GUEST: 

Here's Andrew Och talking about Dolly Madison:
 

The National Portrait Gallery is exploring the complex duties of the first lady and how the job has evolved over 250 years in an exhibition called “Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States.” The interactive online exhibit is available through May 23, 2021 while the galleries are temporarily closed due to Covid-19.

 

 

Transcript

 This transcript is machine-generated and contains errors.

Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy, and this is The Exchange. Our guest today presents a unique portrait of America's first ladies, all of them in a two volume book he calls "Unusual For Their Time." In it, Andrew Och describes his travels across the country to create a fuller picture of these women beyond the famous men they lived with. And Och reminds us, first ladies were not always wives. Earlier in our history, they were niece's sisters, daughters and aunts who stepped up to this demanding and very public role. Today in The Exchange, we take a road trip to meet America's first ladies and we invite you to join us. What first lady inspires you the most? Which one do you want to know more about? Andrew Och. On the last day of Women's History Month, we really appreciate you helping us out with this book. Thanks for being here.

Andrew Och:
Oh no. It's an absolute pleasure to be here. And we'll go out with a bang. Such a great month. I look forward to celebrating with folks like you every year.

Laura Knoy:
Well, how is this book - or I should say these two books because there's two volumes - how is it different, Andrew, from a regular history book?

Andrew Och:
Well, that's a great question, Laura, it's a travelogue, it's a history lesson, it's where to eat when you're in West Branch, Iowa, it's how to make a TV show. I'm not a typical historian. I wasn't a history major. I'm a television producer that was in the right place at the right time to join this C-SPAN and White House Historical Association project. The series that aired was called "First Ladies: Influence and Image." And I traveled the country back and forth, pinballing across from a historical location, birthplace, cemetery, train station, school, library, museum for every first lady Martha Washington through then Michelle Obama. And my studies continue now through Dr. Jill Biden. But I was taking notes for the series. I was getting to know these women, many of whom I didn't know before this series, and people took interest in it. And, you know, when you're a radio show host, or a television producer, you're you're in entertainment or media, people are typically interested in your projects. It's interesting work. No project was more interesting to people than this. And people just kept asking me and asking me. So it's really an organic process that turned me into the first ladies man. These women made me the first ladies man. I didn't set out to be the first ladies man. I didn't go to college to be the first ladies man. Their stories and their influence on the modern world and our country's history is so profound that I almost didn't have a choice but to take this to the next level and continue to tell these stories from my travels. So it reads differently than a history book because it's not really a history book. It's truly an adventure with these women as I get to know them well.

Laura Knoy:
And it's interesting that you say, you know, with all your television work, this project in particular, you grabbed your audience. What do you think it is, Andrew, about these women that made people just so interested?

Andrew Och:
Well, you know, first lady isn't a new concept, so it's almost like I'm introducing you to that kid in your science class that you always recognized but didn't know, like that that cousin that you knew existed. When I say first lady, when you say first lady, I'm thinking of Eleanor Roosevelt or Nancy Reagan or Hillary Clinton, or whoever you're thinking about, you know what a first lady is but you don't know all of them. And then when you start to realize how influential each and every one has been and what a significant role each of them has played during their time in the White House, and sometimes before and sometimes after, the White House -- very prolific post White House careers. And some of these women have been very, very important and influential before they get into the White House. But the effect and the influence they have on our modern world and how we do think. It's a kinder, softer, gentler politics and policy, and how we feed our children, or raise our children, the way we dress, and fashion. It's part of pop culture, designedly so, with some first ladies, like "just say no" and other things that get into our pop culture, "be best," "let's move," all of these recent incentives, Dr. Jill Biden working with with veterans and things like that. So they're woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, whether we know it or not. And then when we realize this, it takes great interest and it's newsworthy. People feel like they're staying current and it's fun.

Laura Knoy:
Well, what did you uncover about how influential some of these first ladies were, Andrew? And I'm wondering how you discerned that, because, again, earlier in our history, women's opinions were not often valued. So how did you figure out which first ladies really had the ear of their husbands or uncles or brothers? Because as we'll talk about later, not all of them are wives. How did you figure out which ones did have influence and which ones did not?

Andrew Och:
Well, that's a great question and an easy question to answer. They all did. And this was what was so amazing to me. I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., born and raised in Rockville, Maryland. The Smithsonian is my playground. We went there for every school field trip and take relatives from out of town. And Colonial Williamsburg was my fifth grade trip. And I remember more about Busch Gardens and the Loch Ness Monster roller coaster than I do about Colonial Williamsburg because I was a kid. But, you know, each of these places, all these places that you go to, when you dig deep and you unfold the lives of these women, you see that right from the very beginning. Martha Washington is so significant to the story of America that I will go out as far to say if George Washington had married anyone other than Martha Dandridge Custis. She was a widow. George Washington is not her first husband and she acquired so much wealth and status and real estate and wherewithal. She was a woman of natural aptitude, as many of these women are, natural intelligence. She had dreams and aspirations and and like I say, that the aptitude, so they had no other recourse but to hitch their wagons to these up and coming men. But most of our founding fathers married up.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, you write about that. Give us a little more. That's really interesting. Most of our founding fathers, quote unquote, people don't say this so much anymore, but they married up. How so?

Andrew Och:
Yeah, well, George Washington had established himself as a brilliant military leader, a bit of a rogue in the British army as a colonist. But but he didn't have a lot of resources. He didn't own a lot of land. He was from a good family and such. But Martha Dandridge Custis had when her first husband died, when Daniel Parke Custis died, he left her with 8000 acres of profitable tobacco land, about a quarter of the real estate in Williamsburg, two to three times the Virginia state governor's annual salary in cash on hand, silver cash on hand. She was the first successful female CEO. Now George Washington comes into the picture. They fall in love. Certainly it was a love match. We know this from letters and other information. But George Washington says, I'm going to go out and I'm basically going to try and overthrow the most powerful force and navy and militia and army in the world. And I'm going to need you to stay at home and take care of and protect all this wealth that I got through you. I'm going to need some of your wealth to do it. And if Martha couldn't do that, then George would have to. And if George had to do that, he couldn't start the revolution. And not only that, in letters he says, he writes very clearly, I don't think straight without my wife at my side.

Andrew Och:
He brings her at great personal risk and travel. And travel's difficult now, imagine travel back then in the 1700s, she brings these huge entourages to nearly every winter encampment to entertain - and entertaining was politicking. We didn't have the functionality of the mail service. We didn't have telephones. We didn't have electricity. Communication was face to face for the most part. And that's how foreign dignitaries that were funding the revolution, military leaders, other important people of the day, got together at these winter encampments to figure out how to beat the British. And Martha had to facilitate all that at each of these winter encampments. And along the way, she was even stopped. People knew who she was and she gave press conferences. So the first first lady press conferences before there's even a first lady or an America. Just a remarkably, remarkably influential and incredible woman. And it goes on from there. Each of these women helped support their husband, their husband's career, their husband's finances. They were advisers, confidantes. I mean, they've had the ear of the most, you know, one of the most powerful men in the world from the very beginning, simply by by sleeping in the same room with them.

Laura Knoy:
Well, that sounds like a movie. Martha Washington. I'd love to see a scene, you know, of somebody's enacting those early press conferences, as you said. So when we talk about the most influential first ladies, a lot of people have heard of, obviously, Martha Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abigail Adams, we can talk about them. But who among the first ladies that you found out about, Andrew, were also incredibly influential, but we don't appreciate that as much in our time?

Andrew Och:
Yeah, one of one of the most influential first ladies of all time was was Bess Truman and and Bess Truman. I mean, when you think of presidents, you might not even think of Harry Truman as a president. I mean, people know who he is, but he's not in a top ten, you know, for most people. And even less, then, is his wife, Bess Truman. A lot of people listening may not know that Bess Truman was the name of the wife of the president. It's so fascinating to go through each of these people and travel and talk about every single one. During my travels, people would see a camera and they say, what are you doing? Who, what show are you shooting? You say, well, I'm shooting a show for C-SPAN on the first ladies. Oh, well, which one? All of them. No, no, no. I mean, which one? No, I mean all ... like they could not believe that we had embarked on this journey to talk about every single one. So by the nature of the project, I'm forced to learn about every single one and then people that know. So you're actually not only learning about these women, you're learning who they are.

Laura Knoy:
So what about Bess Truman?

Andrew Och:
Bess Truman was a behind the scenes first lady. She was not a very public person. Her father committed suicide when she was a teenager, very sadly, in Independence, Missouri. And she stepped back a bit, her life was sort of stepped back. She did not enjoy attention or the public eye, but she was in on meetings around World War Two and the use of the atomic bomb and this is not unusual. Women have been in these conversations, in these meetings, in these rooms. But given the fact of what was going on at the time and what happened, she was a part of some of the most significant decisions in our country's history, given the nature of the time. And the letters between her and Harry Truman; the're talking about things that that you you would not expect them to be talking about. Edith Wilson, Wilson's second wife, his first wife died of Bright's disease, kidney disease in the White House in the early 1910s. And he remarries. And Edith Wilson, the Wilsons would take the papers and the work of the day for the president out of the Oval Office, put it in a file cabinet with a handle on top of it, a carry file cabinet, go upstairs. And then she would help him sort through the the business of the day, the files of the day, the the briefings of the day. I mean, these women have access to incredible amounts of top secret information. And then Wilson suffers a stroke that lasts about six months where he ducks out of the public eye and nothing got to the president's eye or into the president's bedroom or got the president's attention if she didn't allow it.

Laura Knoy:
So the story we often hear, Andrew, is that she kind of ran things. But I don't know if that an exaggeration or not.

Andrew Och:
Not an exaggeration at all. I mean, it was a different time. If a president disappears for a day, we think something's up now, if we don't see him walking across the lawn or a briefing or getting ice cream or jogging or whatever. But, he essentially went into hiding, recovered from the stroke and the plan between him and the White House doctor was to resign. But I've held the letter and read the letter that says the president's plan to retire does not please Mrs. Wilson, even to the point where she didn't let him retire because she thought if he didn't have purpose, he would die. And she ended up to be more or less right, because after the presidency, he did die, which was inevitable given his condition and things like that. But I think it's sustained him. But she wrote letters. She approved dignitaries talking about subjects. All of these are in Stanton, Virginia, at the Wilson Library. You can see her handwriting and her stamp of approval on a number of significant documents.

Laura Knoy:
So could we almost call her - almost - the first female president?

Andrew Och:
I do. In the book, I say she's the first unofficial female president of the United States.

Laura Knoy:
So, Andrew, as I mentioned, today's the last day of Women's History Month, and this does raise the question, how hard was it for you sometimes to research the earlier first ladies at a time when women really weren't considered important to write about?

Andrew Och:
Yeah, that's that's a great question, too, and history is funny and our historical preservation is funny. I'm always surprised by what we do have, all of the incredible things that we did save, as I am surprised at the things we didn't save and the things that we let go. We'll get a little bit into that when we talk about your New Hampshire first lady, Jane Pearce specifically. But, you know, the founding fathers became so significant and people like the Adams saved so many different files and documents. And Dolly Madison helped her husband, James Madison, write up the notes from the First Continental Congress, and they knew they were doing something significant. So that early stuff is there. It's the middle stuff that disappears or the one termers or the people that, you know, like Rutherford Hayes. You know, we were talking about influential first ladies. My gosh, Lucy Hayes had causes and was influential and was doing things that women of her day, women of means, women of her status did not do, typically, by going to medical facilities, veterans hospitals, and mental hospitals to do research and find out what was working and what was good and reporting back to her husband. And those are the women that are kind of lost. But you find these small groups, you find these little nooks, these places in the country. And that's why I say, I logged a lot of miles, hauling seven bags of gear across the country for a year and two months, to find these places.

Andrew Och:
And when you get there, especially when you talk about the women, this was the unusual thing about this project. You go to most of these places and everyone wants to talk about the men. I would have to restart the camera, restart my interview, reposition people to say, no, no, in this instance, we don't care about the presidents. We want to know what what Mary Lincoln did in this room. We want to know what Bess Truman said at this press conference, not what the president said. I think that the people, the experts, the docents, the historians, the directors at all of these facilities, they enjoyed readjusting their thinking and the way they talk about their sites and their artifacts, because it wasn't just all about dresses, and china, and the things, you know, jewelry and things that you would typically think of when you think of first ladies. We wanted to know about their lives, their upbringing, their thoughts, their letters, what they did, their influence. So it gave everyone a different perspective that was pleasantly welcomed everywhere I went. So we were dusting off this stuff that was rarely talked about and rarely shown. And it was a real aha moment for a lot of people that were at these sites. So they were very, very happy to talk about it.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, it is welcome to hear you say, you know, these women go far beyond dresses and china, as you said, Andrew. Let's go to our listeners. And William's calling us from Missouri. Hi, William. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller:
Hello, I was just wondering what your guest had to say about Eleanor Roosevelt. She was the longest tenured first lady and she was in the Depression and World War Two. And I just wonder what he had to say about her.

Laura Knoy:
Thank you, William. And, boy, people have written entire volumes of books just about Eleanor Roosevelt, because William's right, she did a ton. But just give us your sort of synopsis, if you could, Andrew, of Eleanor Roosevelt, including perhaps things that people might not know about her.

Andrew Och:
Sure, certainly. I mean, he's right. Eleanor Roosevelt was first lady longer than any other first lady in history because her husband was elected to an unprecedented and then repeated four terms, which is now unconstitutional. And you can't do that. So that record will never be broken. But here's the thing. Franklin Delano Roosevelt never would have been president had it not been for his wife. When he was diagnosed with polio, it was about the same time that it was revealed that FDR was having an affair. Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to leave FDR. FDR's mother, Sara Delano, FDR was a mama's boy, I'll say it publicly, he did what his mother said and his mother told him how to live his life. And she said, You've got polio, you're retired, Eleanor, you're not divorcing Franklin because we're Roosevelt's and there's too much at stake. And everyone listen to Sara except for Eleanor to a certain extent. If Franklin had retired from public service like his mother wanted, then she would be trapped. She would be trapped in the house run by her mother in law, where she had no formal seat at her own dining room table. He was told where to go and when to go and how to raise her children and where to go on vacation, all of this stuff. Which was very surprising to me for a woman that was so accomplished and did so much, especially in a post White House career, authored or coauthored over 25 books, worked in the humanitarian efforts of the U.N., was a grand dame of the Democratic Party, a JFK needed her blessing to run and they had a private meeting. Just a remarkably accomplished woman.

Andrew Och:
But she was so controlled and sheltered in her private life. Well, she hired a political expert to basically reinvigorate FDR s career. And while he was doing this, because he was confined to a wheelchair, or getting there, Eleanor had to be his legs and be part of his voice and take on a different role as a first lady than any other first lady had before because of his physical handicap, of the time and what was available to him. So we have Eleanor Roosevelt to thank for FDR carer that spanned, you know, three and a half terms as president and historically the longest and one of the most influential first ladies in history. I mean, think what would have happened to the world at that point in time during World War One, our American history, the global history, and what Eleanor Roosevelt would accomplish after, if FDR had listened to his mother that one time and not continued his political career. The world would be a different place without her.

Laura Knoy:
We have take a very quick break, Andrew. When we come back, we will go back to our listeners. And we'll also talk in particular about first ladies from New England. So stay with us.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange I'm Laura Knoy. Today, a trip across America to discover the country's first ladies. Our guest is former C-SPAN producer Andrew Och, author of the two volume book called Unusual For Their Time: On the Road with America's First Ladies. Now we have more information about Andrew's project on our Web post for today's show. So check it out. Along with a link to the National Portrait Gallery is a virtual first ladies exhibit. I looked at that yesterday, too. It's pretty cool. It's on the web post that our producer, Jessica Hun, put together. And Andrew, right back to our listeners, Sharon's on the line from Concord. Hi, Sharon. Thanks for calling in.

Caller:
Thank you for taking my call. I just want to acknowledge how important Jacqueline Kennedy has been and her influence on the arts and culture and preservation of the White House. And I wonder if your guest could speak to that a little bit.

Laura Knoy:
I'm so glad you called Sharon, because in this segment, I wanted to focus in a little bit on first ladies from New England. So go ahead, Andrew, please.

Andrew Och:
Yeah, and thank you for that question as well in the call. You know, Jacqueline Kennedy, you can't talk about first ladies without talking about Jacqueline Kennedy, one of the world's most well known, most written about and and and studied and revered and loved first ladies. It was difficult as a producer, how do you dive deep into a woman that we think we know or we already know so much about? And I was fascinated to find out where this love of art and culture and paying it forward and giving came from. And she was a caring person from childhood. It was incredible to read her essays, to read her poetry when she was in single digits, eight, nine years old, writing about seagulls at the shore and the wind taking boats across the ocean. She was given a trip -- of course, she was a child, a person of means-- and her parents gave her and her sister a European vacation for a graduation present, high school or some such. And she and her sister went and they took the camera and they took a journal and they took pictures and they journaled where they were going and what they were seeing. And then they would draw Jacqueline Kennedy, in this scrapbook drew original drawings and wrote poetry next to the pictures and next to the journal entries.

Andrew Och:
She was just always thinking and creating. And they gave this book back to her parents as a thank you. So when she gets to Washington, D.C., for grad school and goes to George Washington University, she's immersed in the world of politics and the history of Washington, D.C. She gets a job. She's called a girl with camera and she starts interviewing people around; she actually interviewed before she would would start dating and marriage. She interviewed a young senator, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon with hercamera for the Washington Star, I believe it was, that might be incorrect. But she had this sense of history, this sense of archiving, the sense of, this realization of the world and the history around her from a very young age. So when she gets to the White House and designates the White House, a national historic site amd a museum and establishes the White House Historical Association and gets involved with the Kennedy Center and the performing arts and all the stuff that she does, it's really not a surprise. But but it was fantastic to see where this came from. There's a great

Laura Knoy:
Just doesn't pop out of nowhere.

Andrew Och:
No, no. It was nurtured and encouraged from a very beginning. She won an essay from Vogue magazine when she was at G.W. writing about herself. And she was very deprecating. She said that her her forehead was too big and her eyes were wide apart. You know, she she really wasn't...

Laura Knoy:
She didn't see herself as a great beauty that many people did.

Andrew Och:
Yeah, yeah. But, you know, she also had this sense of culture which made her so popular on the world stage. When someone gave her a present, she knew to wear that necklace or hold that charm or whatever she was doing at the dinner that night if she was visiting a foreign country. She would learn foreign languages to say a phrase in Spanish or French, which I think she was fluent in French. So that wasn't she didn't have to learn. But once you would go there, she would embrace that culture, which worked so well even today. So there was a diplomacy to her, that that gave her that that edge.

Laura Knoy:
And very helpful to her husband. Yeah, well, Sharon, thank you for calling, because it does give us the opportunity to dive in a little bit more with some of the other first ladies from New England. Margaret in Concord writes, I've always been a fan of Grace Coolidge. She was bright, a bright and warm woman, a teacher of the deaf. She helped Jewish refugees. And Margaret says she had great pets, white collies, Rebecca the raccoon and more. And I was interested to learn about Grace Coolidge, too, from your book. There's a lot more to her than just, you know, the wife of Silent Coal.

Andrew Och:
Yes, Grace is another favorite. So Margaret, was it, who wrote the email? Thank you. Grace Coolidge was also the first lady of baseball. She's such a transformative woman, I mean, just just teaching the deaf at the Clark School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, right out of college. That's stuff that people did not do. One of her very, very welcome and esteemed guests at the White House when she was first lady was Helen Keller. So the fact that she was interested in this group of people that needed to be educated in a special way and she would do that, at that time in our country's history, is remarkable on its own. But while she was at the University of Vermont, she was the scorekeeper for the men's baseball team. And she would go on in her first ladies life to love baseball. There's a great picture of Cal throwing out the first pitch at a game in Washington and the look and the smile on Grace's face. You know, for his quiet and stern and unapproachable as Cal was, Grace was just this loving, smiling, embracing, hugging person.

Andrew Och:
And that was a good example of a of a yin and yang, almost like Dolly Madison and James Madison. You know, you had this this stern little all business guy. And this woman would threw just the best parties and wore the turbans and had rum punches and just a great, great time. And some of those presidents, that are those more quiet type, need that to make them more affable, more approachable, more human. And that's what Grace did. And Grace later, in the White House, she was given by the American Baseball League, a purse every year at the beginning of the baseball season with a token. She could get into any American game park for free because they knew how much she loved baseball. And her favorite teams were the Boston Red Sox and the Washington Senators, which shows that she had a mind for politics because when she was in Washington, she rooted for the Washington, D.C. home team, even though her heart was in Boston with the Red Sox.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, that's that's amazing. First lady of baseball and I did read, Margaret, the story about the raccoon. So thank you. If you want to learn more, listeners, you can check out these books. Again. It's called Unusual For Their Time, and it's a two-volume set by our guest, Andrew Och. Two more New England first ladies that we should talk about, Jane Pierce, since here we are in New Hampshire, widow of Franklin Pierce, New Hampshire's only president. And many of our listeners, Andrew, since we're here in the Granite State, probably know that she had a lot of tragedy in her life, losing her three sons at young ages, including one who died in an accident right before her eyes, right before inauguration. It just doesn't get more horrible than that, really. What's the fuller picture of Jane Pierce that you uncovered, Andrew?

Andrew Och:
Yeah, thank you. And Jane is a favorite because she's just so tragic and misunderstood. And I think what people don't understand and certainly didn't understand during, in Jane's day, was just how much of a homebody she was and how she was just against Franklin Pierce's exploits. She wanted him to be a lawyer. She wanted him to stay at home. She wanted him to be the family when they were around. I mean, the loss of every single child. And as you mentioned, the last one so tragically before her eyes. I just can't even imagine dealing with that now, with the with the understanding of people and depression and support groups and medications and things that we have. Back then there was nothing. She had to go through this on her own. I mean, she she was under the understanding that Franklin Pierce went to that Democratic National Convention in Baltimore to nominate a person to be president, not become the nominee, and then go against all odds and actually win the thing. And, you know, the amazing thing that I uncovered about Jane Pierce was how much written word there is, how many letters survive, how many things exist, including a last letter that she wrote to her son Benny after he died.

Andrew Och:
It's one of the saddest things I've ever read in my life. I like to speak about it because it's so significant. But it's hard to speak about, because I choke up. I tear up. She was lambasted for this and this. When I read this in the books, you know, my study, my research, you read a lot of things and a lot of things are romanticized over the course of history. And a lot of things are just not true. You know, we like to think that they were true, but the evidence doesn't exist or someone lost it or this. And when I was mentioning to Peter Wallner, he was who I spoke to there in New Hampshire at the at the New Hampshire Historical Society, I said, well, you know, they say that crazy Jane wrote these letters to all our dead children. He said, no, no, no, she didn't write any she didn't write multiple letters. And it wasn't all the children. She wrote one letter to Benny. I said, you've got to be kidding me. Yeah.

Laura Knoy:
Because the images we have, she's locked in her room. She's guilty. You know, people of the occult trying to, you know, they aren't exactly

Andrew Och:
Dressed in black going into the White House and all this other stuff. I mean, there were a lot that happened. Yeah, well, I think that that did happen. She was visited by sisters, but but a lot of people were Mary Lincoln. I mean, back then, everyone was dying and. People wanted to know whether whether it was from wars or diseases which are easily cured now, you know, you could die of dehydration back then. There were no blood transfusions, no penicillin, anything, and people were trying to stay in touch with those people. Jane was a highly, highly religious person. The Pierce manse, before it was moved to where it is now, thanks to the Pierce Brigade. I got to throw out that. Thanks. Because they saved that that structure from being torn down for four progress and moved it to where it is today. They used to be right across the street from a church. Her father was a preacher. She just wanted to go to church, come home. She didn't entertain. They kept a very comfortable but very sparse house without a lot of excess, you know. So when she loses all of these children, especially the young, you know, Franklin Jr. died days after birth. Frank, the second son died at the age of four. And then Benny was 11, I think. And tragically, like we say in the train accident right before her eyes. I mean, that's one of those would be a lot for someone to deal with. She had all three and she blamed God's vengeance on the death of her children because her husband had gone off to this this convention and come back nominated and gone to the White House where she wanted nothing to do with Washington, D.C., nothing to do with politics. And then when she got there, she's grieving. She just gets blasted by the public and the press during basically the whole time. It doesn't it doesn't just sound from her.

Laura Knoy:
It sounds absolutely miserable. And so you talked about how influential many of these wives were. Doesn't sound like Jane Pierce. Was that influential because as you just told us and I read this in the book and it's amazing she thought her husband was going to the presidential convention to vote. And he comes back and says, oh, by the way, I've been nominated. I mean, it doesn't sound like she had a lot of influence over Franklin.

Andrew Och:
Well, she did not have influence over Franklin. But influence can take many faces. And when you come into the White House grieving, when you come in dressed in black and when you put black bunting up, I believe that the customary time to mourn was a year. They all these rules and regulations back then or what's proper and what's not. And she had the black bunting up for four, two years, so half of his administration. So she may not have been influential on Franklin Pierce, but she was influential on his White House, his administration and the public opinion of the Pierces, which which is significant. I see what

Laura Knoy:
You saw back there. Yeah, her actions shaped people's views, even if she was just, you know, trying to exist in this horrible crisis. That's a good point.

Andrew Och:
Even if she didn't even go to the inauguration because she was Betty Ford accident in Andover happened as they were going back to Concord to pack up the home to move to D.C. And this is how tragic her life is. They were going to Andover to pick up Benny at her sister's house because her sister was watching Benny while Franklin and Jane were at Jane's uncle's funeral in Boston. I mean, just death was everywhere for this woman.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. Let's take another call. Andrew, this is Allison in Epping. Hi, Alison. Thanks for being on the air with us today. Go ahead.

Caller:
Hi. I'd like to know if any other first ladies have been vilified the way Hillary Clinton was and why was she so vilified?

Laura Knoy:
Oh, Alison, this is a great point. And boy, Andrew, you could write a whole book about favorite first ladies and vilified first ladies. Anybody who comes into that category, first ladies who you feel like kind of got a raw deal from the public. It sounds like, for example, Jane Pearce was not particularly understood or appreciated by the public. Who else?

Andrew Och:
Yeah, no. Jane Pearce is one that one hundred percent comes to mind. You know, it's it's it's interesting. Hillary Clinton is is different than any other first lady. And it's because none of the first ladies other than Hillary Clinton were elected or paid and Hillary Clinton got elected and got paid after the White House. Politics is a rough, rough sport that we all know. And it's difficult for me as a historian. It's difficult for me as someone who's not political to discuss Hillary Clinton because she went into that public arena. When you run for office, you put yourself out there. When you become part of an administration, as she did as a secretary of state, you become a target, you know, and first ladies, more and more sadly, and people's families become targets. But, you know, I would say that maybe not. You know what? If one was is vilified as the other, you know, that's that's that's relative and perspective. But. Since the the popularization of social media, every first lady has been vilified and continues to be vilified and it's happening with Dr. Jill Biden even with her title. People are upset that she's using DR. I had numerous professors in college that I called doctor. I'm thinking of Dr. Khanjar was my it was my professor of Sociology 101. You know, she was fantastic. And I didn't I've got a friend, Dr. Jay Gordon, at Youngstown. I call him Dr.

Andrew Och:
Jay, of course. And you know why Dr. Jill Biden should be any different. But if you think the last first lady that people just adored, for the most part, no matter what they thought about her husband, was Laura Bush. People loved Laura Bush and people had very strong opinions of George W. Bush. And first ladies always poll higher than their husbands, but the very next first lady, Michelle Obama. People said horrible things about her. People still say horrible things about her. And because they didn't like her husband, and that's not entirely fair. And people said and still say horrible things about Melania Trump, even when these women, unpaid, unelected, are trying to do good things, try to do philanthropic things, trying to do things for children, trying to do things for veterans and do things that are just good for everyone in general. But we, the people and more so the press are blasting these women because they don't like their husband. So, you know, Mary Lincoln was was vilified to a certain extent, especially after her husband was assassinated. And she did go a little off the reservation. Looking back now, speaking from modern medical times, there are theories that say a little vitamin B 12 would have improved her attitude and you could buy things that are illegal now in pharmacies and self medicate to the point where you could make yourself kind of nuts.

Laura Knoy:
And that was obviously devastating for her. And now we have, you know, as you said with Jane Pierce, now, not that we could, you know, wipe away these women's pain, but we would have ways of maybe helping them a little bit more through their depression. And we have to take a very quick break. But when we come back, a lot more emails. And I'm going to ask you about some of your favorite first ladies, Andrew, whether they were heavily influential or not.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange I'm Laura Knoy. Today, we're talking about America's first ladies through an unconventional history about them. Our guest is Andrew Och, a former C-SPAN journalist and author of the two volume set called "Unusual for their Time on the Road with America's First Ladies" and it's based on the TV series that Andrew produced. And Andrew, Beth in Freedom writes "Regarding the assets Martha Washington brought to the marriage, were enslaved people part of her wealth? And if so, how many? I think that should be included, Beth says." Beth, I'm glad you wrote, because, Andrew, I learned from your book that Dolly Madison was a Quaker who with her first husband, freed enslaved people they had purchased and moved to Philadelphia. What else did you learn about how these first ladies felt about the institution of slavery?

Andrew Och:
Yeah, certainly a very important part of our history and one that I don't ignore. I want to throw something right back very quickly to the last question. Rachael Jackson in the 1920s was so destroyed in the press for some of her upbringing and certain aspects of her life that President Andrew Jackson says it caused her death. She died a month before the White House inauguration. You can read about that in the book. I won't go into details to backtrack too much, but very shocking to hear that this was happening even in the 1820s.

Laura Knoy:
Being vilified.

Andrew Och:
Highly vilified, and publicly, especially, so a very interesting story there for your last person who emailed. George Washington released all of his slaves upon his death. Martha Washington did not, you know. And at Liberty Park in Philadelphia, where the second executive mansion was, the first executive mansion was in New York, the second in Philly, as the White House in D.C. was being built, the Adams were the first ones to actually move in and live there. They tell a great story about Martha Washington actually gave one of her slaves to her granddaughter as a wedding present and the slave ran away, not she by all accounts, she liked as much as a slave can like the owner. I hate to even say that it's horrible, but seemed to get along just fine with Martha Washington. But Martha's granddaughter was just a nightmare. And the prospect of going to be owned by this woman and given to her as a wedding present, she actually escaped and got to free land. And Martha actually took it as a great insult because they thought they had this great relationship. You know, Dolly Madison was a Quaker and did not own slaves in Philadelphia with her first husband, John Todd, but she did then own slaves in Virginia with James Madison.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, OK. I did not know that.

Andrew Och:
Yeah. You know, so she goes back and forth. I tell you the most the most fascinating story to me with regards to slavery and first ladies comes with the Grants. Ulysses S. Grant came from the north and a family that that did not approve of slavery. They were they were abolitionists. The Dents, Julia Dent, his wife were from St. Louis, Missouri, and they were slave owners and lived on a plantation with slaves. Conversations at that dinner table were apparently not very comfortable. Ulysses S. Grant's parents didn't even go to their son's wedding because he was marrying a slave-owning family. Ulysses S. Grant and Julia Grant, as a married couple, did not own slaves. But it was a point of high contest during their courtship. And the reason why Julia's parents let the courtship go through and let the marriage go through was because Ulysses S. Grant had saved Julia's brother, had saved his life in war. That's actually how they met. Ulysses S. Grant and Julius brother went to West Point together and Julie's brother brought Ulysses home for Thanksgiving dinner or spring break or something like that. I did it, you know, with my college roommate because I lived in Maryland and went to University of Maryland. Out of town kids come home for whatever. And it was love at first sight. He saw Julia, his roommate's sister and they fell in love. And then, you know, the father, Mr. Dent, did not want the courtship to happen. But then Ulysses ends up saving the brother's life in war. I think the Mexican-American War, I'd have to go back and double check that. But then it was kind of like, well, I mean, we owe the guy. And so the daughter's hand in marriage was given and the Grants marriage was fantastic. She's the first lady to publish her memoirs from the White House. Maybe not the first to have written them, but the first to publish them. And it's a fascinating perspective.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, that's great. Well, Beth, I really appreciate the email. It's very important. And also just to let listeners know, the enslaved woman who ran away from the Washington's that Andrew mentioned is Ona Judge. And we here on The Exchange have done a couple shows on Ona Judge because she ran away to New Hampshire and managed to successfully hide out in the state for the rest of her life. And in fact, we did a recent show just a couple of months ago on black cemeteries and black gravestones. And there's a segment that show that features Ona Judge. So if listeners want to know more about that, check out our website as always. Here's another email from Kim. I love this one. Kim says, "Betty Ford broke the mold of first ladies. She was outspoken enough to disagree with her husband, for example, on abortion rights and brave enough to go public about her breast cancer when it wasn't done. She was also a trailblazer in raising awareness of addiction as a disease. Her openness about her own struggles and the establishment of the Betty Ford Clinic helped reduce the stigma and promote the treatment of addiction. Her influence actually improved society, which is a rare accomplishment in a first lady." And then Susan in Nashua says, "Lady Bird Johnson did a lot for the environmental movement. How important was this at the time and for her legacy?" I love these emails, Andrew, because, you know, some first ladies, Kim and Susan are right took on, you know, really important causes and had an influence.

Andrew Och:
Yeah. Kim, thank you for that. Spoiler alert. Kim just wrote my Betty Ford chapter in volume two, but I'm going to take it a step further. And I say this publicly. Betty Ford was and is the most influential first lady past, present or futur.? Now, how can I say that?

Laura Knoy:
That's that's a big statement,

Andrew Och:
That is a huge statement, but it's for everything that Kim mentioned. I met Betty Ford when I was a kid in 1976. I've got a great picture on the website of me and I put it in my presentations. That's a different story for a different day. But Betty Ford, I realized this as I was writing her chapter, even after all the miles, all the research. And I was writing the stuff down that she had done and her influence, as Kim so completely mentioned there, I realized there is no human being on planet Earth that can escape directly or indirectly cancer and addiction. I've got both in my family. It is impossible to be a human being and not be touched by those two afflictions. Had it not been for Betty Ford. I had someone come up to me at a speech and say she could remember her father basically spitting out his food at the kitchen table, when on the nightly news, they said, Walter Cronkite or whoever said the first lady, Betty Ford, has breast cancer. You couldn't say breast on TV in the 70s, or it wasn't done regularly. And she brought an awareness, there would be no breast cancer walks. No pink ribbon. None of this would happen had Betty Ford not stood out. And not only did she do it and go through that, she went through it publicly as one of the most visible women in the world. And then she did it again with addiction, both of which can be terribly, terribly personal and humiliating situations.

Andrew Och:
And she did it publicly. I don't know any other way to say it, so, so, so. That is what makes her the most influential first lady past, present or future. Now, that doesn't take away from the accomplishments of other women like Lady Bird Johnson. I could take you to a place on the Georgetown Parkway coming out of the back side of D.C. and you can see where Lady Birds wildflowers are still there. What she did for the beautification of the country, Americans love their cars, Americans love to drive. We love our highways, our byways. And she made them all much more beautiful with her beautification project. And it's something that long outlives her. And even if you don't remember that it was her, it ignites this interest, this awareness, this caring, this movement of people to make things more beautiful and not litter and take things to the next level. You know, these women, they put forth these things and this goes back to even even Dolly Madison and and Harriet Lane and Lucy Hayes that we were talking about. These influential women typically around economic downtimes or war. They work with orphans, they work with children, they work with veterans and do these things to make us better people. While they're not getting paid for it, they're not elected to do it. There's no job description for first lady. They don't have to do it. A wife does not have to be the first lady. And you mentioned it at the top of the show.

Laura Knoy:
We should talk about that.

Andrew Och:
Yes, they do this not entirely out of the goodness of their heart, I'm not completely blind to the to the benefits of being first lady. And they they don't all go in blindly to this. I'm not suggesting that. But it is a job that is undefined. It is a job that there is no training for. You can't take first ladies 101 in college or major in being first lady. You typically don't aspire to be this. You marry a guy that happens to run and beat all the odds. You've got a better chance of getting hit by lightning or being eaten by a shark or winning the lottery than you do winning the presidency.

Laura Knoy:
Well, let me jump in and share a couple more emails, and it's hard to believe we only have about three minutes left, Andrew. Katie emails: The idea that George Washington released all his the the idea that George Washington released all his slaves upon his death is a common misconception, Katie says, but is untrue. Katie says, I learned this on your own radio station last year when author Alexis Coe was interviewed about her biography of George Washington." And, Katie, thank you for writing that in. And we encourage you to look at Erica Dunbar's book on Ona Judge as well, as well as Alexis Coe's "You Never Forget Your First" if you're interested. We've done a lot of history shows on The Exchange and we love doing it. That is a misconception that a lot of people have. Rebecca in Milford also writes, "Thank you for your passion about this history. It is so easy for us to forget that we benefit from the fruits of their efforts." I want to ask you about some of the first ladies, Andrew, some of the first ladies who were not wives. There were a couple of wives, at least one who said to their husbands, no, I'm not doing this. There were a couple presidents whose wives died before inauguration or while they were in office. So sisters, daughters, aunts had to help. What did you come to appreciate about these first ladies who were not wives?

Andrew Och:
Yeah, I mean, surprisingly enough, by President number three, Thomas Jefferson, his wife had been dead 20 some years before he got into office. So his daughter Martha was her name called Patsy was his stand-in. And when she wasn't available, she she had something like 12 or 13 kids. She had the most children of any single woman in the role of first lady in history. So she had her hands full. And when she wasn't, Dolly Madison, as the wife of the secretary of state at the time, would have stood in and done hostessing duties and had parties at her house and things like that. But it's just fascinating to see that someone did stand in and there wasn't always someone there as a wife or a traditional first lady. One of the most influential, and a lot of people don't even think about James Buchanan, when you think about presidents. Number 15, Before Lincoln, and he was the only bachelor president never to marry. His niece, Harriet Lane, one of the most influential women to serve as a first lady in the White House. She helped establish the children's ward at Johns Hopkins because of tragedy in her own life with her own children. She helped get together what would become the National Gallery of Art and the influence that she had on the modern world and these philanthropies and causes. It's just shows that a woman can be influential, effective and a massive impact on the modern world while not being a traditional first lady or wife of a president.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Andrew, we could have talked forever. There's so much more in these books. But for now, thank you very much for being with us. I really appreciate it. That's Andrew Och. A former C-SPAN journalist and author of the two volume set, "Unusual For Their Time: On the Road with America's First Ladies." Today's show was produced by NHPR News host and exchange producer, Jessica Hunt. This is The Exchange on NHPR.

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