Remembering the First Ladies: Three pioneers publish first textbook

Remembering the First Ladies: Three pioneers publish first textbook
From left to right: Authors Diana Carlin, Nancy Kegan Smith and Anita McBride at their December 1 book signing. (Photo/Marty DeVine)

By Caitlyn Meisner |

Alexandria resident Nancy Kegan Smith – along with co-authors Anita McBride and Diana Carlin, Ph.D. – have published the first textbook on the First Ladies, “U.S. First Ladies: Making History and Leaving Legacies.”

Smith, a resident of the city since 1964, teamed up with fellow First Lady scholars in the spring of 2019 to write the first book analyzing and documenting the role, spanning from Martha Washington to Jill Biden, Ed.D.

“We started an association, First Ladies Association for Research and Education, and that was born in Alexandria,” Carlin, professor emerita of communications at Saint Louis University, said. “That was, in some ways, the impetus for the book was knowing that we needed more done on First Ladies. When this opportunity came to pitch a textbook, it was when we were in the process of really getting FLARE up and running.”

FLARE – of which Smith will be president starting in January – is working to promote the importance and knowledge of the First Ladies and foster more research on the role. In partnering with many organizations, including the White House Historical Association and George W. Bush Institute, FLARE provides programming and talks from other leading scholars.

The organization, according to its website and Smith, was established in June 2019 at Smith’s Old Town home with six of the other founding members: Carlin, McBride, Myra Gutin, Elizabeth Natalle, Katherine Sibley and Molly Wertheimer.

Carlin, who already had experience writing textbooks and had an existing relationship with a publisher, pitched the idea of a First Ladies book with Smith and McBride. The publisher said yes immediately.

“There’s not a shortage of books [on the] First Ladies out. There are many biographies,” McBride, current director of the First Ladies Initiative at American University and former chief of staff to Laura Bush, said. “This is different in the sense of putting these women in the context of the time that they were in the role and how society may have dictated women’s roles at the time.”

Each of the authors mentioned that there is always a resurgence of interest in First Ladies posthumously, which is ever present since Rosalynn Carter’s death last month. Through this work, each hopes the interest and recognition of the Ladies’ work comes far before their deaths.

“[First Ladies] are getting attention for things that are very predictable [while in office],” McBride said. “I saw that working for Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Laura Bush: The focus on how they wear their hair, what their clothes are.”

Another difference between the many biographies and this textbook: a foreword by First Lady Jill Biden, Ed.D., herself, currently a college professor at Northern Virginia Community College teaching English. She’s the first First Lady to have a paying job out- side of the White House.

“We weren’t sure that [Biden] would be able to accept because it’s not typical for a sitting First Lady to do something like that unless it’s a government publication,” McBride said. “But she was really interested in making it happen. … There was an element of trust by their office with us. We weren’t a big commercial venture. We were an academic, educational teaching tool, and that was important to them.”

A part of the deal was to create a textbook for colleges and universities to use for courses, but also create a book for the general public. The latter version has much of the same information, but allows the authors to expand in different ways and leave out learning objectives, discussion questions and key terms.

Biden’s foreword is only available in the textbook version, not the version meant for the general public.

The three started writing in the summer of 2021, but already had one chapter pretty much done: After George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May 2020, the co-authors submitted an opinion piece to CNN. It was jointly written to show the role and impact First Ladies have had on slavery and civil rights.

Smith, a retired National Archives director of the Presidential Materials Division and current lecturer, said the setup for the book is based thematically around women who changed the role of First Lady dramatically: Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson and Michelle Obama.

“We feel [they] affected that role so much that we showed them in terms of single chapters,” Smith said. “We’re looking at it … in terms of the impact on the role and what their biography dictates in terms of how they approached and did the job.”

In the 18 textbook chapters, the authors explore the evolution, refinement, formalization, expansion and influence of the role of the First Lady. Many chapters focus on particular issues that have faced this nation, including slavery and civil rights to World War II and how First Ladies have left their mark.

“You can’t really study the arc of history of either the country or the presidency with- out looking at the First Ladies because they were involved, especially before we were even a country,” Carlin said. “These women were among our first female political actors, and I think that’s an important story to tell.”

McBride echoed Carlin, stating the First Lady is a “partner to the president.”

“The most unique of all confidants that a president has, a front row seat to what’s happening in history,” McBride said. “This was an opportunity to fill a gap in academic literature.”

And after a preliminary pilot of the book in five college classrooms, this is what the authors heard from students: Write more about the family dynamics and how political events impacted the West Wing.

“[The] tremendous feedback from students [was] very helpful, including the title, which one of Carlin’s students gave us the suggestion for,” McBride said. “The common response by students – both men and women – is, ‘Why did we never learn this before?’”

Carlin also said while teaching the courses online, she had never seen so much virtual interaction with the material, both in and out of the classroom.

“Virtual classes are not easy to get people to participate in, [but] I would have four and five hands raised all the time,” Carlin said. “McBride came to those classes and they were full of questions.”

The textbook version is currently available and the general public version, under the title, “Remember the First Ladies: The Legacies of America’s History-Making Women,” will be available in January.