Remembering the Ladies
Review is by Molly
Ann Covell’s Remembering the Ladies: a Century of U.S. First Ladies 1789 – 1889 is an enjoyable work chronicling the lives of what may be to many, complete unknowns.
Every child student in the US has heard the names of many of our presidents, on the other hand, few if any have even heard, much less know something of the President’s wives or families. Ann Covell’s work fills a need to stir interest for these ladies who quietly marched into history for the most part and were quickly forgotten other than by a genealogist here and there.
I personally have a life long love of history, like people and have long wanted to know more about both. I Ann Covell’s Remembering the Ladies to be very appealing as we learn a snippet or two regarding these quiet women who, time and place dictated, were to remain in the shadow of their husbands.
One interesting aspect I found on the pages of Remembering the Ladies is the fact that ugly, at times really untrue, mean spirited and frequently baseless disapproval of the President’s wife is a very old political fixture; it began with the founding of the republic and continues to this day. Washington’s gentle, unassuming wife was well received, not all wives were as evidenced by the criticism of Elizabeth Monroe following the election of her husband. Knowing nothing of her; popular opinion was that Mrs Monroe was guilty of snobbish social indifference rather than illness, timidity or perhaps other reason. Few were aware that during the days of the French revolution it was Mrs Monroe who achieved the release of Madame Lafayette from the gaol in which the lady was imprisoned.
Because it was a social faux pas to discuss child bearing other than in the confines of the home few realized Louisa Adams may have been facing total ill health and deep seated depression; she experienced eleven pregnancies during 21 years of marriage, during which the first seven pregnancies were miscarried.
Many of the President’s Wives, openly expressed little desire to be the wife of the President, but once he was elected set about to fulfill the role which had not been clearly defined other than the spouse was to be the official hostess for the President. In the case of the widowed Jefferson and others daughters, daughters-in-law, and other relatives were called upon to fill the role.
Even what to call the spouse of the President - Queen of the White House, Lady, Mrs President, and for Julia Tyler Mrs Presidentress, were used prior to President Taylor’s noting Dolly Madison as The First Lady during her state funeral. That was the appellation that finally stuck.
I enjoyed reading Ann Covell’s Remembering the Ladies: a Century of U.S. First Ladies 1789 – 1889 and learning something of these women who during the early days of our country quietly took their place beside husbands; often without really realizing what turn their life was to take.
The diversity of these women, well educated to just barely lettered, product of a multiplicity of backgrounds from abject poverty to a childhood as the beloved pet in a wealthy home filled with opulence, some fluent in several languages, and varied background from Dutch, Russian, English, German and other, having parents who were honest, unremembered today to those whose parents and grandparents are among the founders of the nation is a fascinating read.
During those early years of our country general education was not universal, despite that many of spouses were well educated, but expected to voice no opinion of their own. Women in those days were expected to bear children without complaint, but to have no control in the rearing of the children, or ownership of their own inherited property. Women were to quietly defer to husbands in all things.
While a political figure might welcome the approval of his spouse, her disapproval was her problem, and he ran for office whether the White House was in his wife’s hopes or not. Willing or not, healthy or not, she was expected to be the always pleasant and proficient hostess for all White House functions, whether private or governmental.
Washington society was, may well still be, incredibly arrogant and challenging, a supposed misstep, no matter how inconsequential, could, and still may be socially destructive leading to public ridicule and pillorying. Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor, a sophisticated Marylander born into a politically powerful family, whose wealthy tobacco farmer, father served the nation well during Revolution and was herself well educated for the time was portrayed during the election campaign as coming from a poverty stricken family, uneducated, and vulgar and was cartooned as a hill woman smoking a pipe.
Each woman, spouse, daughter or other relative who came to occupy the White House alongside husband, father, in law, or other relative brought her own style, signature and ability. Many of the wives were already deceased from child bearing, others were worn out and in health due to the near constant child bearing experienced by women in those early days.
Many, well suited both in temperament and intellect, embraced the role with vigor, style and grace, others held back allowing daughters, in laws and other relatives to take on the role, while there were those who were not at suited for the role into which they were thrust. Beginning during the 1800s it became the norm for the Present’s spouse to take on a socially important or charitable cause, not a political one, and that carries over into today.
One interesting point Ann Covell’s Remembering the Ladies: a Century of U.S. First Ladies 1789 – 1889 clearly defines is the absolute brutal and ugly behavior of many in politics, society as a whole, and Washington DC social scene members toward the spouse of a President or presidential candidate. Education, upbringing, number of children, lack thereof, even hair style all are grist for the mongering.
I find Ann Covell’s Remembering the Ladies: a Century of U.S. First Ladies 1789 – 1889 to be a well researched, highly readable work which fills in many gaps. While I personally have long read history, I found many anecdotes in this work that are new to me. I like expanding my knowledge.
I can see a real place for Remembering the Ladies in the High School library, for Home Schoolers, for history buffs and those who enjoy a well written work depicting some of the history of our country.
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These reviews are personal opinions only and in no way reflect other readers' opinions of the books discussed.
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