Trailblazing in Pearls: The Iconic First Ladies That Shaped Women’s History

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, it is imperative to delve into the often-overlooked contributions of America’s First Ladies, shaping not only the White House but the course of women’s history itself. The Anchor asked some students on campus about their favorite First Ladies and received insightful feedback about their choices. 

First, Anchor asked Anna Muma (‘27), a freshman and Political Science major. Muma explained that she admires Jackie Kennedy, who served as First Lady from 1961 to 1963. “My favorite first lady is Jackie Kennedy,” Muma said, “because she took her role as representative for her country extremely seriously while simultaneously being an influential icon for American women.” Some of Miss Kennedy’s accolades include creating the Fine Arts Committee in the White House, establishing the White House Historical Association, publishing the first White House Guide Book, giving the first televised tour of the White House and traveling to France, where she negotiated for the famous painting, “Mona Lisa” to travel to the United States (Jacqueline Kennedy). Miss Kennedy’s actions as First Lady paved a path in women’s history through her creation of the White House Historical Association, which has preserved many of the key historical objects and stories from influential women alike. 

Next, Anchor heard feedback from Natalie Ginestre (‘27), a freshman and Psychology major. Ginestre said that her favorite First Lady is Michelle Obama, who served as First Lady from 2009 to 2017. Ginestre noted Miss Obama’s successful qualities, including being a “highly successful businesswoman, lawyer and philanthropist who also strived to improve nutrition in schools, as well as improve the education system. . .” Many of Miss Obama’s initiatives were indeed focused on improving education. She started the “Reach Higher”  initiative, which aimed to support students seeking education after high school, and the “Let Girls Learn” initiative, which promoted the availability of education for girls around the world (Michelle Obama). Miss Obama’s contributions to women’s history continue to reveal themselves through the lives touched by her various initiatives. 

After talking with Ginestre, Anchor spoke with Alaina Plaskewicz (‘27), a freshman here at Hope. Plaskewicz cited Eleanor Roosevelt as her favorite First Lady, saying, “. . . she advocated against racial discrimination and defended the liberties of Japanese Americans even after her husband had ordered them into internment camps.” This pushback was just the beginning of Miss Roosevelt’s reign of leadership. During her husband’s presidency, she served as the Assistant Director of Civilian Defense and became the first First Lady to travel to an active warzone. After her husband’s death, Miss Roosevelt served as a delegate of the United Nations, where she helped draft the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. Miss Roosevelt climbed the ladder in her post-First-Lady career, eventually becoming appointed to the Peace Corps, and finally the President’s Commission on the Statute of Women (Eleanor Roosevelt). Eleanor’s legacy undoubtedly left a mark on women’s history and inspired many First Ladies after her to take on bolder roles. 

Finally, Anchor asked the leaders of the Ford Forum about how women’s leadership has inspired the fundamentals of their Forum. The Hope Ford Forum Chapter, which started at Hope last year, is a program that seeks to provoke leadership, engagement and community improvement through bi-partisan conversation. Marlie McDonald (‘25), a junior and co-president of the club told Anchor about how Betty Ford’s contributions influenced the history of the Ford Forum. “Betty Ford was a key historical figure, especially to Ford’s presidency. . .” McDonald mentioned.  “She was an advocate for many hot-button issues of her time, including equal pay for women, gender equality, abortion rights, and alcoholism and substance abuse awareness. The second (and then first) lady was a key element of President Ford’s legacy that we as a Forum and as students can learn from. I always enjoy learning about Betty Ford because although the First Lady position is more behind-the-scenes, her work was tireless.” Therese Joffre (‘24), a senior and co-president of the Forum also touched on how the contributions of Ford and her husband are inspiring people today. “The inspiring works of Gerald Ford and Betty Ford demonstrate what we as a new generation of leaders must do to protect our democracy.” 

In reflecting on the remarkable legacies of Jackie Kennedy, Michelle Obama, Elanor Roosevelt and Betty Ford, it becomes evident that their contributions extend far beyond the confines of the White House. Through their unique approaches to advocacy, leadership and public service, these First Ladies have left a notable mark on women’s history, inspiring generations to come. From Jackie’s commitment to refining the White House to Michelle’s commitment to health and education, from Eleanor’s courageous leadership and to Betty’s stamina in maintaining social advocacy, each woman has exemplified the diverse ways in which First Ladies can shape our nation and empower women everywhere.

(Featured image source: The Visitation Voice)

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