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Published: July 27, 2023

Behind the Ball Gowns

Behind the Ball Gowns

UT researchers explore the women of the White House

By Madeline McMahon, M.A. ’24 | Illustration by Sarah Krolik ’20, M.A. ’23

Despite their proximity to the highest realms of political power, the First Ladies of the United States have historically been overlooked as political figures on their own. A team of undergraduate students and political science professors at UT have spent the last few years working to change that.

Professor Mary Anderson and Assistant Professor Jonathan Lewallen have set out to analyze how the Office of the First Lady operates as a section within the executive branch. In spring of 2020, Anderson casually mentioned the research project to students in her Intro to American Government class, where she caught the attention of first-year students and bourgeoning scholars Philip Ferdinand ’23 and Jess Bansil ’23.

POLICY VS. PERCEPTION 

Since then, Ferdinand, Bansil and a handful of other students have taken a deep dive into the public statements of Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama to compare each woman’s words, duties and deeds. They’ve read through and categorized around 240 of Clinton’s public statements, more than 500 public statements of Bush’s and around 750 of Obama’s. 

After going through these speeches front to back, up and down, and in between the lines, the group’s discoveries have revealed discrepancies between reality and more familiar narratives and headlines.

“I recently watched a CNN special that showcased (Michelle Obama), and it was all about how she ‘redefined the role,’ and that is the general narrative,” Anderson said. “But when you look at her public statements, she’s much more traditional than even Laura Bush was, whom we associate with being a traditional first lady.”

Obama spent more time speaking with families and children, as well as hosting guests at the White House, Anderson said. When looking at her time in office in the context of the country, the group theorized that her understatement was on purpose, as her mere existence was unconventional enough for many.

“Her being Black and filling this role — even though she was still a tremendous policy and party advocate — she still kind of had to maintain this more traditional role for the people who were so blown away by having a Black president and Black first lady,” Ferdinand said.

Conversely, Bush was inserting policy into many of her appearances, and even working for her nonprofit foundation instead of the administration. Lewallen and Ferdinand agreed that Bush’s tours and press conferences focusing on reading and literacy were indeed reminiscent of Clinton’s healthcare initiative when it came to her public remarks and activities, though she didn’t get much credit for it.

“People think of Clinton and Obama as the modern first ladies who brought the office into the new century,” said Ferdinand. “But Bush was talking about policy just as much, if not more.” 

Perhaps the reason for the lack of awareness and understanding is that the hints were subtle. The research team categorized the first ladies’ presentations into three roles: policy, when they were pushing their or the president’s initiatives; partisanship, when they advocated for the party; and ceremonial, when they performed the traditional duties of wife, mother and hostess. While previous scholarship deemed these categories mutually exclusive, the UT team noticed overlap.

“They are making strides in their initiatives because they’re embedding it in situations where people might not think about it as policy,” said Anderson. 

For example, Obama hosting a Let’s Move event at the White House for families and children would normally be considered ceremonial, as she is playing the classic “lady of the house” role. But simultaneously, she was actively advocating for the Let’s Move campaign, so UT researchers also considered it a policy role.

The overlaps helped maximize the effectiveness of their messages. Bansil recalled that when Obama and First Lady Jill Biden teamed up to advocate for veterans, the ceremonial side made the campaign feel more genuine.

“You could tell they were mothers as well as policymakers. They spoke with so much care and emotion, but they were also incredibly informed and had the points to back it up,” said Bansil.

Michelle Obama blended policy into traditional roles. Image of 2009 inaugural ball gown. Photos by Getty Images.Michelle Obama blended policy into traditional roles. At right is her 2009 inaugural ball gown. Photos by Getty Images 

HOSTESSES OF THE NATION

The idea for the project came about after Anderson visited The First Ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

“I was just disappointed by the lack of what was there,” she said.

The exhibit contains collections of the first ladies’ inaugural ball gowns, along with the china place settings that were used for White House events. Although the garments and the fine dining wares were beautiful, Anderson couldn’t help but think of everything missing from the women’s stories.

Anderson tapped Lewallen, who has been involved with the U.S. Policy Agendas project since his doctoral studies. The Policy Agendas project evaluates presidential speeches to track consistent policy topics. Anderson and Lewallen applied the same method to the first ladies’ speeches delivered during their times in the White House.

Bansil had visited the same museum exhibit with her Girl Scout troop in middle school. She left inspired by women in politics, but also remembered her troop leader pointing out how little was on display. It wasn’t until a couple of years after working with Anderson that Bansil learned of the origin story behind the project: “It was very full circle,” said Bansil.

Ferdinand sees an underlying benefit to the exhibit, even if it is overall lacking. “I think it says a lot about these women that they were able to play into this more subdued role and basically pull a fast one over on the country,” he said.

“You have these women who can wield a tremendous amount of political power, and everyone’s just, like, ‘Oh, she wears pretty dresses and talks to kids.’” 

FINDING A FAVORITE

Clinton, Bush and Obama are the only ones whose speeches the group has completely analyzed, and they’re currently in the process of filing through Melania Trump’s and Jill Biden’s. These more recent women are the only ones whose works have been fully digitized, but the project doesn’t stop there.

The group plans to start filtering through speeches on paper all the way back to Jackie Kennedy, plus the addition of Eleanor Roosevelt, because “you can’t talk about first ladies and not talk about Eleanor Roosevelt,” said Anderson. So far, they’ve secured an invitation to the Carter Presidential Library to view Rosalynn Carter’s documents, and are eager to dig in.

Through this process, the researchers are learning which of the first ladies are their personal favorites. For both Anderson and Ferdinand, Lady Bird Johnson is an unexpected standout.

“She was so intelligent,” said Ferdinand. “More times than not, she was taking notes and speaking up in meetings to make sure she was being heard, which you wouldn’t think would be happening in the mid-to-late 60s.”

Anderson praised Johnson’s foresight in recording a daily diary during her time in the White House. Johnson’s background in journalism turned into an asset for anyone wanting to study her or the First Ladies. Not to mention, the Office of the First Lady owes its existence to Johnson, as she was the first to hire a staff and establish the structure that holds today.

Bansil resonates most with Obama, as she grew up with the Obama administration and admires her authenticity and humor. Lewallen is looking forward to learning more about Carter, whom he thinks didn’t get enough credit for the sizable advisory role she played.

MAKING A DENT

The group hopes their findings prompt more scholarly discussion about the Office of the First Lady, as well as inspire an expansion of what is normally studied in political science to include more advisors and others in government who aren’t directly elected. 

“Hopefully focusing on the first lady will allow us to point a way toward expanding the set of policy actors that we are paying attention to and using to understand how the entire policy process works,” Lewallen said.

Bansil believes their research will keep the conversation flowing, but it’s just the start.

“Even though our study does make a dent, it’s still nothing in comparison to the amount of time and energy that has been spent studying the 46 (presidents),” she said.

First Ladies Exhibit

First Ladies Exhibit The First Ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History was the inspiration for Professor Mary Anderson's research. Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.