Mrs. Mount Rushmore?

Ranger Joan turned and asked across the office, “If you could make a Mount Rushmore for the First Ladies, who would you put on it?” And so… it began. The conversation went from a fun question between a Ranger and a Volunteer to a group debate that even brought Ranger Allison out of her office to put in her two cents.

All of us here at James A. Garfield National Historic Site have our niches that we fit into. Ranger Scott knows just about everything there is to know about James Garfield in the Civil War, for example. Ranger Alan knows more about the political climate of the time than anyone else. And Ranger Mary specializes in Victorian art and style. I may not be a ranger, but my specialty is our First Ladies’ lives and times. So a question like Ranger Joan’s is a dangerous invitation to a LONG conversation from which I will not let you escape!

All jokes aside, Ranger Joan’s question warrants some discussion. It also brings up a LOT of questions. As Ranger Alan and I starting throwing out names, the question became: if you were going to make a First Ladies Mount Rushmore, how would you possibly decide who deserves to be up there? What are the criteria? Does Jacqueline Kennedy deserve to be up there as much as Martha Washington? What about Abigail Adams? Certainly Eleanor Roosevelt… right?

Do we hear any votes for Lucretia Garfield? (White House Historical Association)

So, for some fun, we posed the same question that Ranger Joan asked me originally to our community of great friends on Facebook. The post unexpectedly became our most popular post in the two years our page has been running. TONS of people got involved and made their opinions known. There are certainly some names that show up more than others. And there were a few surprises as well. So if we were to go only off the Facebook votes, and stick to four women, the First Ladies Mount Rushmore would be (drumroll please):

#1 – Dolley Madison

#2 – Eleanor Roosevelt

#3 – Abigail Adams

#4 – Martha Washington

The overwhelming response to this list is: okay – that sounds right. But why does it sound right? When you think on it, measuring the success and contributions of our First Ladies is almost more difficult than that of the Presidents. The First Lady has no official job. She is not mentioned in statute books and her tasks are not outlined for her in the constitution. She literally has an unofficial title and no real power to speak of. So why exactly do those women above “sound” right? (Not that I’m arguing their nominations, of course.)

Dolley Madison is revered for saving priceless White House treasures when the British burned the Executive Mansion during the War of 1812. (White House Historical Association)

Before we can really talk in depth about the four women mentioned above we have to stop and look at who and what the First Lady is. Be warned, though, that is a topic that many authors have written full books about. So in the interest of keeping this brief, let’s put it in a nut shell, shall we? As far as the Constitution is concerned, the President’s wife is nothing more than the President’s wife. Even the title of First Lady is ceremonial – historians even argue over when the term started to see regular use. Sure, today the First Lady has a staff and office of her own. But it can be very safely said that this is a more recent development. Our first First Ladies were simply expected to run the household, raise the kids, organize and prepare parties, and so forth. Not that any of those are easy tasks, especially when they’re being held under a microscope – but you get the idea.

However, what the First Lady does have is recognition. Going back in time, the First Lady has always been one of the most easily recognized women of her time. At a time when women had few rights, “famous” women were hard to come by. People certainly knew who Martha Washington was though. So while the First Lady has no real power outlined by any document, the sheer amount of recognition and attention she gets, just by being married to one certain man, is where her power comes from. As early as Dolley Madison’s time, the First Lady had begun to realize what she could do with that little bit of attention. Today the role has evolved to the point where we actually expect the First Lady to set goals and accomplish them. Our First Ladies take on projects and causes in an effort to better the world in their own special ways – from Lucy Hayes’s feelings for the temperance movement to Michelle Obama’s fight against childhood obesity. The First Lady has a truly unique chance to affect people all over the country simply by being herself.

Betty Ford’s openness about such previously undiscussed subjects as breast cancer and addiction endeared her to many Americans, male and female alike.

So, with all of that being said, how do we measure her success? The four women chosen up above certainly experienced success in affecting the American public in some beneficial fashion. Dolley Madison showed us the power behind a successful dinner party and how it could bolster the President’s popularity. Eleanor Roosevelt proved that a woman was capable of as much politicking as any man – and she could be just as good, if not better, at it. Abigail Adams showed us that a woman could handle business decisions, moral dilemmas, and be a trusted advisor even when the rest of the world wouldn’t have believed it so. And Martha Washington set a precedent for activity by being present to mend soldier’s uniforms, cook them meals, and nurse them to health.

But haven’t other First Ladies been equally “successful” by those same standards? What about Betty Ford’s open honesty about breast cancer? How many lives were saved because she told women what happened to her and told them to go get checked? Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s wife, Happy Rockefeller, stated outright that she was checked and her breast cancer discovered early because of Betty Ford’s openness. And what about her desire to discuss addiction and how to treat it? And then there’s Caroline Harrison. Sure, she’s a name that people don’t really know today. But she single-handedly managed to get Johns Hopkins University to begin expecting female students. She started the Daughters of American Revolution, a group dedicated to the preservation of history. And she brought electricity to the White House, while also ridding it of a terrible rat and bug infestation. Are Mrs. Harrison’s accomplishments any less important than Betty Ford’s? And is Mrs. Ford’s ability to discuss anything with anyone more valuable than Eleanor Roosevelt’s political savvy? Our Facebook poll reveals VERY few votes for Betty Ford and even less so for Caroline Harrison.

Caroline Harrison wanted to make a difference as First Lady. She made the White House more livable by adding electricity and updating rooms. She also struck a deal with Johns Hopkins University: the school agreed to enroll women in return for her support in building a new wing on a Baltimore hospital. (

So now I pose the question to you again: who deserves to be up on “Mrs. Mount Rushmore?” Is our list of four women at the top sufficient? Who would you put up there, and why? Over the course of a few blog posts I will explore these four choices with you and see if we can get to the bottom of why these four women deserve to be up on a mountain. Tune in again soon for further discussion on “Mrs. Mount Rushmore.”

-Andrew Curtiss, Volunteer


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