Editor’s note: Julian Zelizer, a political analyst at CNN, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The opinions in this comment are his own. See more statement on CNN.
This weekend, First Lady Jill Biden travels to Eastern Europe and meets with Ukrainian refugees, aid workers and others working to help those affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
As the Biden administration continues to express its steadfast support for Ukraine’s struggle to maintain its independence, the First Lady’s trip is another opportunity to demonstrate US commitment to Ukraine. It will also serve as an important reminder to all US and NATO allies that US engagement in Ukraine will extend far into the post-war period – when it does.
This is not the first time that a first lady has played a significant role in national politics on an issue of international importance. Since Martha Washington first took office, many first ladies have tried to find a way to do more than redecorate the White House and host ceremonial receptions.
But they did not do so without difficulty. Every time modern first ladies have tried to push beyond the traditional boundaries of their roles, there has been a fierce political backlash against them.
Most famous was Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a syndicated columnist who wrote and spoke on some of the greatest issues of the time, including racial injustice. For her openness, she was viciously attacked throughout the 1930s, over everything from her physical appearance to her relationship with left-leaning political figures.
“I have been accused of being rude to Mrs. Roosevelt,” wrote columnist Westbrook Pegler, “while only saying that she was naughty, presumptuous and conspiratorial, and that her withdrawal from public life at this time would be a good public service.And Pegler was only the tip of the iceberg.
But the first ladies – including Roosevelt – nonetheless continued and often took strategic trips abroad to help their husbands work. In 1943, at the height of World War II, Roosevelt traveled to the South Pacific for a month-long voyage. In Sydney, Australia, she gave a series of speeches on the role of women in war and on the home front, concluding: “Perhaps here is the germ of an idea that women in the post-war period will be encouraged to participate in all activities. citizenship activities.
In November 1990, Barbara Bush, wife of George HW Bush, joined her husband on a Thanksgiving trip to Saudi Arabia in the midst of the Gulf War. She turned out to be the life of the party, enchanted the soldiers and made everyone laugh with her sharp humor. “I rarely squeeze weapons,” she said as her arm brushed a rifle that was in a soldier’s arm.
“President Bush did not come to Saudi Arabia with weapons or missiles today, but he had a much more effective secret weapon – Barbara Bush,” a columnist wrote in The Washington Post. Similarly, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Melania Trump have taken trips abroad to help their husbands advance their political agendas during their respective presidencies.
First ladies have also been an integral part of political campaigns. In the fall of 1964, Lady Bird Johnson toured 1,628 miles through eight southern states, met with political leaders and spoke in support of Lyndon B. Johnson’s record – even when she encountered angry crowds about her husband’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Michelle Obama was one of the clearest and most vocal critics of Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016, delivering some of the most powerful speeches and comments on the issues facing the nation in the run-up to his nomination. And at the Democratic National Convention in 2020, she ripped into Trump as someone who was “clearly inside his head.”
First ladies played a crucial role in political deliberations. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Hillary Clinton to lead the task force that drafted his health plan. Predictably, she became the vicious target of conservative attacks and scorn in the media, which spoke of her in terms comparable to Eleanor Roosevelt’s. During the health fight, a cartoon showed Clinton sitting in a high chair, hovering over her husband in the oval office, while one counselor whispered to the other, “It still confuses me a little bit.” Although the plan failed, Clinton’s work helped propose a new model for health care reform that became the basis of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act.
First ladies have also become masters of important matters. Lady Bird Johnson was a well-known advocate for the environment and beautification of highways. Betty Ford was a strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, which brought her into direct conflict with right-wing activists like Phyllis Schlafly, who mobilized to defeat it. Meanwhile, Nancy Reagan campaigned against drug use, telling the nation’s youth to “Just say no.”
And, of course, first ladies can serve as counselors, sometimes dramatically – as in 1919, when Edith Wilson secretly intervened after her husband Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke.
What is clear from history is that first ladies have always found ways to use their positions to influence public life – even in the wake of sexism and bigotry. And every time a first lady, such as Jill Biden, who is currently traveling to confirm US support for Ukraine, plays a role in tackling the challenges of our time, she is helping to set a stronger precedent for a future where the country does not just want to accept, but expect the commander – in – chief’s wife to use her position to improve the lives of Americans.