Throughout American history, the wives of presidents varied in their approach to the situation in which they found themselves; some chose to be the veritable flower on the wall and remained out of public view as much as possible, while others took an active role toward championing a favorite cause that gave them a higher profile with the press and public. The four women who inhabited the office during the 1950s and ’60s, the boomer years, chose both paths.
Bess (Elizabeth) Truman
Wife of Harry Truman, she inhabited the office from 1945 to 1953. Bess preferred to not be in the spotlight and rarely spoke in public. In fact, she held only one press conference while her husband was president. She insisted that questions be written and given to her in advance so she could prepare short and succinct answers. She did not respond to additional requests from reporters.
She was, in some ways, the opposite of her predecessor, Eleanor Roosevelt. Bess hosted fundraising events and attended official White House dinners. However, she only remained in Washington, DC during the social season — when fundraisers took place — and remained at the Truman residence in Independence, Missouri the rest of each year.
Born in 1885, Bess was the longest living First Lady, passing away at age 97 in 1982. Harry died in 1972. A fun fact for boomers: when Lyndon Johnson signed the Medicare Act into law in 1965, the very first two Medicare cards were issued to Harry and Bess Truman. They were on hand to accept them.
Once Dwight D. Eisenhower took the oath of office in January 1953, his wife Mamie was with him throughout his tenure, from 1953 to 1961. Mamie was a private person, and as the wife of an Army officer — one who commanded the Allied troops during World War II no less — she was well aware of both the freedoms and constraints of a president’s wife. As such, she gladly accepted the duties of managing the White House staff, especially during formal dinners and entertaining. However, she ruffled some feathers in the Senate when she refused to allow Senator Joe McCarthy (yes, THAT Joe McCarthy) into the White House to attend those dinners. Conversely, she was known to order cakes from the White House chef, and hosted birthday parties celebrating the birthdays of White House staff in her charge.
After a nine year hiatus during the the war, Mamie reinstated the White House Easter Egg Roll in 1953. She made headlines then because for the first time in White House history, she invited African-American children to join in the fun on the White House lawn.
Mamie was perhaps the first fashion icon of the boomer first ladies in that she was a woman of the 1950s. She loved pink, and newspapers and magazines loved to feature her in the pink gown she wore during the inaugural balls, and the subsequent pink overcoat and handbag for which she became known.
Born in Iowa in 1896, Mamie and Dwight returned to their home in Kansas when he left the presidency. President Eisenhower died in 1969. Mamie continued for another decade, passing in 1979.
The public knew her as Jackie, and as her husband entered the office in 1961, she told the press her priority as First Lady was to take care of her husband and children. However, boomers remember her as perhaps the First Lady with the highest profile of any during the boomer years.
Jackie was known for her fashion sense, and promoted American fashion designers around the world. She was also a proponent of American art and historical preservation–and as such, was the first First Lady to hire a personal Press Secretary.
As First Lady, she was surprised that the furniture in the White House had no historical value, and she undertook the restoration of the White House as the People’s House. She was the first First Lady to win an Emmy award for her TV tour of the White House in 1962.
Of course, every boomer recalls the events surrounding the death of President Kennedy in 1963. She left the White House for the couple’s home in Georgetown, with her two children, Caroline and John Jr. Born in 1924, Jacqueline Kennedy died in New York City in 1994. She is the only First Lady of the boomer years who is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Lady Bird (Claudia) Johnson
Thrust into her First Lady position after the death of President Kennedy in 1963, she would remain in the White House for her husband, Lyndon Johnson’s, tenure until January 1969.
Considered an excellent campaigner, she was instrumental in her husband’s run for Congress. When John Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson as his running mate, Jacqueline was pregnant, so he asked Lady Bird to campaign for the ticket. She did so on her own, visiting more than half the states in the country.
Lady Bird expanded on Jackie Kennedy’s personal press secretary and established the first press office staff for the First Lady at the White House. She is also the first First Lady to actively lobby Congress. She regularly assisted her husband’s efforts behind the scenes on the War on Poverty and on behalf of civil rights legislation, and is credited with helping to create the Head Start preschool program.
Still, she is best known as the champion of conservation, pollution control and beautification efforts. She lobbied for the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which initiated plantings along America’s highways, and also limited the number of billboards that could appear in one place.
She continued to work on behalf of land preservation and beautification throughout her life. Lyndon Johnson died in 1973, but Lady Bird went on another 34 years, passing away in 2007.
Despite being married to men of either political party, the First Ladies of the prime boomer years were women of their age, setting examples for boomer girls in many ways. More than that, their accomplishments can be seen as a harbinger of things to come for women in the workplace, in politics and beyond.
Did you have a favorite First Lady in the 1950s and ’60, boomers? Did you watch Jacqueline Kennedy’s tour of the White House on TV?