Explore Washington D.C.

Leading Ladies

Abigail Adams once admonished her husband John (the president!) to “remember the ladies,” because “all men would be tyrants if they could.” Unwilling to play bit parts, the wives of state have wielded considerable influence in this power-obsessed city.

For the most visible reminders of these admirable women, head to the popular “First Ladies” exhibit at the National Museum of American History. Expanded from the original 1914 exhibition (the first at the Smithsonsian to prominently feature women), it honors the styles, contributions and quirks of every president’s wife from Martha to Michelle.

Domestic artifacts testify to the first-lady role of hostess and helpmate in strengthening bonds with foreign leaders. Mary Todd Lincoln poured tea from an elegant (though chicken-footed!) silver service, while Caroline Harrison set the table with china of her own design, paying homage to home state Indiana with motifs of goldenrod and corn.

The “hostess with the mostess” was surely Dolley Madison, known for her elegant parties and eccentric tastes that included feathered turbans and an occasional dip of snuff. She won admirers by saving the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington just before the British torched the White House in 1814.

First ladies also ventured out—to campaign for their husbands’ causes and their own. A photo shows Eleanor Roosevelt deep in a coal mine, investigating American working conditions and supporting the president’s New Deal. (Her life-size statue now stands at the FDR Memorial.) Art-lover Jackie Kennedy designed Christmas cards to raise funds for the national performing arts center (later named for her husband) and initiated preservation of Lafayette Square and the present-day Renwick Gallery.

D.C.’s landscape benefited from the green thumb of Helen Taft, who oversaw Japan’s gift of cherry trees that bloom by the thousands each spring and inspire a citywide festival, and Lady Bird Johnson, who designed gardens along the Tidal Basin and George Washington Memorial Parkway. Hillary Clinton, better known for her dogged pursuit of health care reform, also supported tree plantings, prompting the National Arboretum to dedicate a 65-year-old white oak in her name.

Substance matters, of course, but so does style, gloriously reflected in the 26 dresses on display. Some represent evening wear like Julia Grant’s white silk damask gown, the fabric a gift from the emperor of China, but many arrived soon after presidential inauguration balls. Every first lady since Helen Taft has donated her ball gown to the museum.

See Johnson’s daffodil-yellow, silk-satin ensemble, Clinton’s violet beaded sheath with mousseline overskirt and Obama’s one-shoulder chiffon number that put the spotlight on young designer Jason Wu. At press time, politicos and fashionistas eagerly await the sight of the first lady’s gown. Although a second donation is not expected, this dress too may grace a mannequin here, perhaps one day alongside the tuxedo of a first gentleman.

National Museum of American History, 14th St. and Constitution Ave. NW, 202.633.1000. www.americanhistory.si.edu

Brooke Sabin