• Tahuhu Korero

First Ladies As Influencers

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

My interest in the American First Lady began when I was 14. One trip to the library found me engrossed in a biography on Jackie Kennedy and, almost instantly, I was hooked on the lives of these women who became famous because of their husbands. I found their influence over other women, wide-ranging, it’s audience always dependent on the woman, fascinating. As influencers like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid face the threat of subpoenas over their involvement in the disastrous Fyre Festival, I feel it is important to look back on where the influencer trend began [1]. I, personally, argue that we can pinpoint this to the First Ladies of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Jackie Kennedy’s potential influence was underestimated by her husband’s campaign team. When John F. Kennedy ran for President in 1960, there was concern that Jackie’s tastes would be too expensive and unlikeable to the middle-class housewife. She would alienate them, advisors warned. Jackie was not one to listen to politicos, not on the issue of wardrobe. A bright, intelligent graduate of Vassar, Jackie had grown up in the midst of the upper echelons of American society. Her couture wardrobe came as a part of the package. She was right to stick to her guns, it would appear. Her glamour is now famous – something other women look up to. Her pillbox hats and bouffant hairdos became all the rage [2]. Even her name, became a popular one for baby girls. After her televised tour of the White House, a New York Times reporter quipped ‘It is now all right for a woman to be a bit brainy or cultured as long as she tempered her intelligence with a t’rific’ girlish rhetoric.’ [3] She was the modern woman.

By comparison, Betty Ford – wife of the accidental president Gerald Ford – broke barriers. While Kennedy, just a decade prior, had been all about style, Ford was opinionated and forthright – a new kind of woman for the 1970s. In a now infamous 1975 interview on the current affairs programme 60 Minutes, Ford said that she ‘wouldn’t be surprised’ if her daughter, Susan, were to choose to have premarital sex [4]. It was shocking. Indeed, Ladies Home Journal claimed that it ‘shocked the nation’. That kind of honesty was refreshing for women. However, perhaps where Ford’s influence is most keenly felt was in the aftermath of her breast cancer diagnosis. Ford could have been forgiven, according to Myra Gutin, had she not made the revelation [5]. Her decision to make the revelation, to tell the public what she had suffered, could have saved lives. According to one New York Times report, thousands of women scheduled appointments for breast cancer checks because of Ford’s surgery [6]. Betty’s decision to make the revelation, to tell the public what she had suffered, resulted in her receiving more than 50,000 letters from women, many of them claiming that her announcement had saved their lives [7].

If Betty Ford was opinionated and Jackie Kennedy was glamourous, then Michelle Obama’s version of the role was a hybrid of the two. Her clothes showcased a diverse group of designers from the one-shouldered white Jason Wu gown she wore to her husband’s inaugural ball to the teal black and red floral Tracy Reese dress she wore to the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington, the dresses were iconic [8]. The day she got a full fringe, it made waves across the western world [9]. When she spoke the now immortal phrase ‘When they go low, we go high!’ at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, she defined her term in the role. It became the motto for a woman who had entered the White House with the well-publicised aim of being a ‘Mom-in-Chief’ and little else [10]. Obama herself has never shied away from her self-confessed dislike for politics. However, staying out of politics, it turned out, was not quite so easy for her as it was for others. Other First Ladies were allotted an ability to remain somewhat apolitical in their views, a privilege Melania Trump seems to have been allowed. Some, like Hillary Clinton, Betty Ford, and Rosalyn Carter chose not to take that route. Michelle does not seem to have been granted that luxury. David Taylor wrote in 2017 that he had been disappointed by how ‘gentle’ Obama’s topics were [10]. Indeed, it seems that there was an expectation that Obama would talk on so-called ‘black’ issues without prompt. In her recently released autobiography, Becoming, Obama wrote that, in revealing her political opinions to the public, she had to avoid being referred to as an ‘angry, black woman.’ [11] It meant that she had to play into a game of code-switching, acting white for some audiences and black for others [12]. Sometimes, she only narrowly avoided the stereotype.

Obama’s words as the Democratic National Convention, spoken nearly three years ago, still carry weight. They represent a legacy that was always going to be deeply entangled in racial politics too difficult to explain in a 1,000-word blog post. Perhaps best of all, they represent the subtlety of women’s anger and its need to be felt and heard. They had impact from the very moment they were uttered. That was the true influence of the position of the First Lady in 2016. Words matter as much as a wardrobe, as much as experiences. Influencing women has been one of the main roles of a First Lady – although she may not realise it when she takes on the role. Everything she says and does matters, everything she wears is scrutinised. Like it or not, she is influential – perhaps one of the most influential women in the world.


Jessica Marshall studied a Bachelor of Arts in History at University of Auckland and is aiming to be a journalist, with a special interest in the United States. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.

[1] Helmore, Edward., ‘Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid facing possible subpoenas over Fyre Festival’, The Guardian, 29th January 2019. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/jan/29/kendall-jenner-bella-hadid-fyre-festival-subpoena-money

[2] Boyd Caroli, Betty., First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama [Revised Edition], New York, 2010, p.228

[3] New York Times, 20th January 1962, p.59

[4] Burns, Lisa M., First Ladies and the Fourth Estate, Dekalb, 2008, p.124

[5] Gutin, Myra., ‘Betty Ford: ‘When Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary’’, in K.A. Sibley [Ed.], A Companion to First Ladies (pp.552-569), New York, 2016, p.557

[6] Gutin, Myra., The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century, Westport, 1989, p.132

[7] Andersen Brower, Kate. First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, New York, 2016, pp.96-7

[8] ‘Michelle Obama’s Best Looks’, Harper’s Bazaar, 17th January 2019. Retrieved from https://www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/trends/g813/michelle-obama-fashion/?slide=1

[9] Bunion, Chrystin., ‘Michelle Obama and Her Hair: Celebrating Eight Years of Bangs, Curls and That Famous Bob Cut’, W, 16th January 2017. Retrieved from https://www.wmagazine.com/story/michelle-obama-hairstyle-evolution-celebrating-eight-years-of-bangs-curls-famous-bob-cut

[10] Taylor, David., ‘More than ‘mom-in-chief’: Michelle Obama bows out as dynamic first lady’, The Guardian, 6th January 2017. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/06/michelle-obama-legacy-first-lady

[11] Obama, Michelle. Becoming, New York, 2018.

[12] Lockhart, P.R., ‘Michelle Obama’s story of ‘talking white’ shines a light on the complexities of code-switching’, Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/11/13/18091734/michelle-obama-becoming-race-code-switching-memoir

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