Inside the lives of the Presidents’ wives

“Dolley Madison,” Edith Mayo quickly replies when asked who her favorite first lady is. Mayo is the curator of First Ladies: Political Role & Public Image, an exhibit currently showing at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. “I love Dolley Madison because she is such a larger-than-life figure,” Mayo said. Judging by the petite size of Madison’s peach silk brocade dress on display, however, one might beg to differ. First Ladies displays several striking, delicate dresses worn by the likes of Jackie O., Mamie Eisenhower, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In addition to the glamor of the dresses, the exhibit shows that first ladies are much more than fashion icons. “There’s a real person behind the gown, and the gowns are symbolic of the [first lady’s] role,” Mayo explained.

The myriad roles played by first ladies throughout the centuries have ranged from party hostess to supportive wife to international diplomat. The first ladies detailed in the exhibit are “women who influenced fashion and culture,” according to the exhibit’s press release. Ladies like Madison and Louisa Catherine Adams were famed for the social events they planned in order to garner support for their husbands. Mayo’s fondness for Madison stems from the way the first lady “blended entertainment and politics” so skillfully, paving the way for future first ladies to become powerful social figures recognizable nationwide for their class, political power, and cultural prowess.

The exhibit itself is constructed in an intimate, introspective way. Visitors meander their way through solid glass cases that frame the artifacts of these powerful women in a dimly lit room. The room itself fosters an air of exclusivity and retrospective inquisition as to the femininity of the most distinguished first ladies and how they used their role as a wife to voice their own concerns. Housing the most pertinent items that made these women famous, First Ladies proves that these unique women have found the fine line between political activism and cultural domesticity and have exploited it to amplify their (and their husbands’) social power.

As stated by Rosalynn Carter, first lady to President Jimmy Carter, “A first lady is in a position to know the needs of the country and do something about them. It would be a shame not to take full advantage of that power.” Out of this idea came such icons as “Pat for First Lady” signs during Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign and “Mamie-Pat” buttons when Mamie Eisenhower and Pat Nixon’s husbands were running for President and Vice-President, respectively — not to mention Nancy Reagan’s exquisite china for entertaining guests.

First Ladies demonstrates the evolution of the roles of first ladies throughout American history. They are hostesses. They are advocates for educational reform. They are campaign partners and policymakers. The increasing social and political power of first ladies parallels that of the ever-dynamic American woman, insists the exhibit’s curator. Mayo said that First Ladies maintains that these iconic women “define our expectation of the American woman.”

The exhibit comes to the Heinz History Center from the Smithsonian Institution’s American History Museum in Washington, D.C., which will be closed over the next two years for major renovations. The exhibit is interesting not only for its antiquated dresses (such as Mamie Eisenhower’s pink 1958 piña cloth gown or Jacqueline Kennedy’s gray silk dress and matching jacket), but also for seeing how these items ensured the high cultural status needed to make the first ladies (and their gowns and china) infamous.

The First Ladies exhibit opened on Friday, September 22, and will be open through February 2007.