National Archives News

First Ladies Help Define Early America

By Kerri Lawrence  |  National Archives News

WASHINGTON, March 12, 2018 — The nation’s earliest three First Ladies played a pivotal role in defining the nature of the American Presidency to a fledgling nation and to the world, according to the author of a new book on the subject.

Jeanne E. Abrams, author of First Ladies of the Republic: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role, discussed her book during a March 7 presentation at the National Archives in Washington, DC, where she conducted much of her original research.

“The National Archives serves as a rare treasure indeed,” Abrams said. She pointed out that in her roles as an archivist and historian the holdings “primary sources are the lifeblood of historical inquiry.” Abrams is a professor at the University Libraries and the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver.  She is also director of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society, and Curator of the Beck Archives, Special Collections.

Abrams explained how the lives of America’s earliest First Ladies intersected on many occasions, and they often learned from one another as they blazed a path in their new, and often challenging, roles as Presidential spouses in American society.

The position of “First Lady” was not officially defined at the time, and Abrams described how these women worked together to define the role of women in public service and private life in America—a role significantly more restricted than in our society today.

“Without a roadmap to follow, the three women were essentially responsible for creating the role of First Lady,” Abrams said. She added that they each sought a path that would blend their roles as women, wives, mothers, and public figures.

Using letters and other records of Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison, Abrams told how they managed to play a substantial role in the nation’s early political life and greatly influenced public perception of their Presidential husbands. 

“These three spirited first First Ladies, who in their time could not even vote or hold office, exercised intelligence and initiative to transcend boundaries between the public and private arena,” she said. 

Abrams explained how although the First Ladies were not official policy makers, they used their status to politically and culturally influence causes they strongly believed in.  

“They mustered behind-the-scenes support for their husbands, lobbying politicians for causes they believed in,”  Abrams said, sharing the example of Martha Washington’s “overt political gestures to garner support for providing benefits for war veterans,” a cause dear to her heart.

The event was part of a month-long celebration honoring Women’s History, and is one of several events hosted by the National Archives that focus on the contributions women have made to our nation’s history. Throughout this month, the agency will present panel discussions, additional author book talks, and exhibits in various locations across the country. Upcoming events are listed on  
Explore the exhibit, “First Ladies: Style and Influence” at the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, Texas, or online.  Follow NARA on Twitter and search for the hashtag #ArchivesAwesomeWomen to see the collections shared by NARA and other archives, museums, libraries, and cultural organizations. 

You can even test your knowledge of inspiring women with a quiz created by the National Archives Foundation.