Feminist Critique and the Exhibition of the 1980s


The Museum decided to re-interpret the dresses of the First Ladies in light of changing views of women and their role in history. Influenced by the women's movement of the 1970s, people questioned why the museum treated only women married to famous men, and why it focused so exclusively on those women's appearance and decorative role. Women's historians wrote increasingly about the lives and achievements of women as scientists, educators, reformers, writers, and in other roles. They became interested in the experience of more ordinary middle-class and working-class women as well. As one curator put it, the "dolls in the doll house" approach of the First Ladies Hall began to appear dated. Yet the gowns remained popular among museum-goers. In 1992, the Museum opened a new exhibition, entitled "First Ladies, Political Role and Public Image." It showed the popular gowns but also drew visitors' attention to varied contributions and concerns of women placed in the role of First Lady.


Smithsonian National Museum of American History