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The Role of First Lady


Beginning with Martha Washington, wives of the U.S. Presidents found themselves playing a public role as social hostess. Yet newspapers carried very limited information about the First Lady's clothing, interests, or activities. Soon, first ladies faced partisan attacks from those who opposed their husband's policies. Abigail Adams realized that would be the case even before her husband John was inaugurated in 1797. She said, "I expect to be vilified and abused with my whole family when I come into this situation." The public role of First Lady became more visible over the following decades, with the rise of newspapers that reported on White House social engagements and described the appearance and costume of the President's wife. In the 1850s, popular illustrated papers appeared, including Harper's Weekly and Leslie's Illustrated. They courted female readers and achieved broad distribution. They introduced regular features that treated the details of a First Lady's conduct and clothing.


Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, [ca 1855-1865]. Forms part of Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress). glass, wet collodion, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.