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Wednesday, February 19, 2014 by APRIL PETERSON apeterson@tnonline.com in Opinion

Her excellency: The first ladies deserve a day to themselves

Those familiar with the tween show iCarly on Nickelodeon might remember an episode in which first lady Michelle Obama pays the show a visit. The first lady plays herself paying a visit to the iCarly stars Carly Shay, sidekick Sam Puckett and the technical producer Freddie Benson after the trio hack into a military installation to wish Carly's dad, Colonel Shay, a happy birthday. When the always irreverant Sam is mocked for calling Mrs. Obama "your excellency," the first lady responds, "I kind of like it."

As well she and other consorts to the office of president might. They deserve such a title and day to call their own, but first a little Pennsylvania and first lady history.

The first time the term first lady was used by the media was in 1860 when the term described the first, and to date only, first lady who was a native of Pennsylvania, Harriet Lane Buchanan, adopted niece of James Buchanan, our 15th president. He holds the distinction as the only unmarried man to hold the presidency a full term.

In his book "First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents' Wives and Their Power 1789-1961," scholar Carl Sferrazza Anthony notes "Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper," a weekly, dated March 31, 1860, begins an article about Harriet Lane Buchanan by describing her role as "the semi-official position...justly termed the first lady of the land." Harriet Lane Buchanan, born in Mercersburg, Franklin County, was 19 years old at the time.

The duties of the first lady, presidentess or Lady President, some of the earliest terms given to the wife of the President of the United States of America, date back, to, of course, the first first lady, Martha Washington, who set the tone for those who would follow her but for whom much was trial and error.

Mrs. Washington, called Lady Washington while her husband was leading the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, an honorarium preferred for her throughout his presidency, presided over tea receptions on Fridays, entertaining or at least tolerating, political society.

She was the first first lady to have a military escort to an inauguration and to perform the first public act in the role of first lady. She gave a speech from her carriage to thank supporters, politicians, dignitaries and those who gathered to see her as she made her way through the fairly newly United States to join her husband in New York City, the nation's capital, in 1789.

Mrs. Washington also was the first to balk at her role, referring to herself as a "state prisoner" no longer able to run her own affairs. She was 59 years old when George Washington was sworn in as the first president.

Where Mrs. Washington set the tone, Abigail Adams added to the role the power of political advisor. Even without seeing Laura Linney or Virginia Vestoff play the second first lady on television or in the movies, one may know of the reputation of Abigail Adams as a political confidante to John Adams.

In her book "Ladies of Liberty," veteran journalist Cokie Roberts describes Abigail Adams as "a source of information and a sounding board" for John Adams throughout his political career.

Abigail Adams also ran the family farm in Massachusetts, raised the couple's children, including John Quincy Adams who would become the sixth President of the United States, and kept up with the latest politcal intrigues, supporting censorship laws to silence media critics and criticism of her husband.

At first, according to Anthony, Mary Todd Lincoln enjoyed her role in the White House. She handled correspondence, greeted visitors, thoroughly and carefully reviewed newspaper coverage of the War Between the States and kept current on politics. Babies were named after her and, writes Anthony, Mary Todd Lincoln "would always publicly defend justice," including with regard to the abolition of slavery. Mary Lincoln also brought to the simultaneously unofficial official post an understanding of the role of the first lady as a fashion bellwether, a role likely best illustrated by her future fellow widow-in-office Jacqueline Kennedy. Both women would lead a nation in mourning.

Eleanor Roosevelt took the reigns of social activism and reform while Franklin Delano Roosevelt held the presidency during the Great Depression and World War II.

In 1939 Eleanor Roosevelt famously arranged for contralto Marian Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied the singer a concert in Constitution Hall. Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying, "You have got to want to change things that are not satisfactory."

Nancy Reagan attempted to change the unsatisfactory with her anti-drug campaign "Just Say No." Barbara Bush worked to improve literacy, particularly as the problem occurred generationally within families, supporting literacy programs where parents and children learned to read together. And Betty Ford went very public with her addictions, creating the Betty Ford Center in 1982 with a specific focus of addressing the needs of women struggling with addiction.

The first ladies of these United States have done a lot, on par with many male and female monarchs, so, while we, as a nation, remember our presidents this week with mattress and car sales and days off let us not forget those who did and do just as much, if not more, than their famous husbands, or in at least one case, uncle.

Laredo, Texas, will celebrate Martha Washington with a fancy dress ball Feb. 21 hosted by the Society of Martha Washington. Participants don dresses made in the Colonial style and the ball follows a pageant.

However, the full roster of first ladies should be celebrated. Get out your calendars and schedules. Can we pencil something in?



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