First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women

Susan Swain and C-Span. PublicAffairs, $27.99 (496p) ISBN 978-1-61039-566-3
Stories of Martha Washington knitting socks at the front, Elizabeth Monroe saving Lafayette’s wife from the guillotine, and Grace Coolidge’s soap-throwing raccoon offer an unusual perspective on the women who helped strengthen the country through social and diplomatic networking, personal projects, and other forms of support. Taken from a 2013–14 C-Span series, this chronological account engages pairs of historians—including the exceptional Carl Sferrazza Anthony—in discussing the personality, marriage, passions, and legacy of each first lady, resulting in a fluid, conversational style. These changing voices add depth and expertise, though they also have the occasional habit of refuting elements of previous chapters, especially in instances regarding symbolic “firsts,” a term often shown to be subjective. While the public only paid attention to cyclical White House restoration projects and glamorous social events, the first ladies’ sisterhood frequently included mourning deceased children and mentoring or otherwise supporting one another. This accessible account replaces stodgy depictions of stuffy, untouchable first ladies with the relatable, often tragic stories of the determined women who made it up as they went along, to the benefit of their husbands and country. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 02/23/2015
Release date: 04/01/2015
Paperback - 496 pages - 978-1-61039-717-9
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