First Ladies as Political Women: Press Framing of Presidential Wives, 1900-2001

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This project contends that press framing of the U.S. first lady institution throughout the twentieth century positioned presidential wives as important public women who were presented as models of American womanhood. An analysis of the print news coverage reveals that the first lady institution serves as a site of ideological contestation over women's public and political roles, reflecting the intersection of gender, publicity, and power at particular historical moments. The press practice of gendered framing draws on often competing ideologies of American womanhood, and in doing so shapes the content of news narratives. The subjects of the stories often become representatives of social gender norms. I call this practice personification framing, which is the positioning of a well-known individual as the embodiment of a particular ideology. A personification frame serves as an ideological short cut used by journalists to simplify, in the case of first ladies, the complexities of gender role performance, making such discussions easier to insert into the limited space of a single news story.

An outgrowth of personification framing is the emergence of first ladies as public women, gendered celebrities, political activists, and political interlopers, positioning that reflects press representations of women's public and political roles at various points in U.S. history. The publicity and scrutiny surrounding gendered performances of the first lady position construct boundaries of empowerment and containment that help to normalize women's public activity and domestic empowerment while challenging women's public and private political influence. Press frames, thus, serve as important boundary markers that help to define "proper" performances of both gender and the first lady position. While first ladies' status as public women and gendered celebrities results in both access to and influence within U.S. political culture, they remain on the fringes, with their power largely limited to domestic matters and women's issues. When their influence is suspected of trespassing too far into the male political reserve, press coverage exhibits a rhetoric of containment that suggests the political activities of first ladies violate the gendered boundaries of institutional performance. Such framing accentuates the contestation that surrounds first ladies as political women.