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Our History: Remembering First Ladies’ roles in history

The present interest evolved, it appears, from March 8, 1911, when women's rights came to the fore in the movement for women's suffrage. During the Depression in the 1930s, as well as during World War II, the women's rights movement stagnated. By the 1960s and 1970s there was a growing awareness, and by 1970 many universities included women's history in their curriculums. By 1981 the United States Congress passed a resolution establishing Women's History Week. Since 1987 the president has issued each year a proclamation establishing that Women's History Month be celebrated in March.With this brief introduction, I would like to highlight the history of the term "first lady," an oft-neglected story in women's roles in our political history, but one which is evolving into one of extreme importance. Today there continues to be much discussion about the role of the First Lady and her position continues to constitute an important ingredient in the composite of an administration in the United States.Just how did the term "first lady" come to be? Most of us assume it has been used to refer to the wife of a president. This has been so in the 20th century and our present century for every one of the presidents of those eras had a wife to assume that role. However, the history of the appellation, "first lady," goes back in time to the presidency of James Buchanan who remained a bachelor all of his life. Up to that time no real application of the term "First Lady" was used. However, as the first bachelor president, Buchanan asked his niece, Harriet Lane, to serve as his hostess in the White House.Lane, though quite young, was very successful in her role and soon became of interest to the public and to the press, including Harper's Weekly which in May of 1858 carried an illustration of "Miss Lane Our Lady of the White House" which covered across nearly a four column page.Lane, despite her youth, was a seasoned hostess having served in that role at Buchanan's home before the move to the White House. The oddity of a bachelor president did in no way diminish her status and the press continued to make this young woman a full-fledged celebrity. Her uncle did not hesitate to bestow on her all the responsibilities of a president's wife. She was described by one journalist as "occupying a position in the palatial residence of her eminent relative similar to that which Queen Victoria and the Empress Eugenie occupy."Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper set a historic precedent when it first used the term "first lady" in public print. It carried an illustration of Lane (a full page) quoting, "the subject of our illustration, from the semi-official position which she so long sustained with so much honor to herself and credit to her country, may be justly termed the first lady of the land." Thus the term "first lady," which up to that time had merely been used verbally now became at least semi-official. Again Leslie's newspaper reported the expression calling her "the lady of the White House and by courtesy the first lady of the land." The term became regularly used.The role of first ladies was immortalized in a Smithsonian exhibit honoring them. When the exhibit first displayed the dress for each "First Lady" Lane's gown took prime attention away from Mary Todd Lincoln's cape as the replicas of the two stood side by side.An interesting aside is the story of a United States revenue cutter named for Harriet Lane, the U.S.S. Harriet Lane. Originally based out of New York, it later fired the first shot in the Civil War as it tried to stop a ship bound for Charleston the night before the attack on Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861.Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and free-lance writer.

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