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‘First Lady’ Shows US Leadership Through the Eyes of Women Backstage at the White House

In a scene from Showtime’s new series “The First Lady,” Michelle Pfeiffer’s Betty Ford tells “60 Minutes” about her unlikely jump from Michigan housewife to woman behind man. America’s most powerful in 1975.

“Washington can be an extremely tough town for a political wife, don’t you agree?” Boris McGiver, as Morley Safer, asked.

“I agree, but you see, I have 26 years of experience as the wife of a congressman,” Betty began, referring to her husband, President Gerald Ford. “But I think a congressional wife has to be a special kind of woman.”

It is precisely the “special kind of women,” including first ladies Michelle Obama (Viola Davis) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson), that the anthology television series focuses on in an effort to recycle some The most important female figure in White House History.

Image: Dakota Fanning as Susan Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Aaron Eckhart as Jerry Ford in "The First Lady".
Dakota Fanning as Susan Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Aaron Eckhart as Jerry Ford in “The First Lady”. Murray Close / Showtime

“First Lady” has no position description, no statutory obligations and no statutory obligations, said Anita McBride, director of the First Ladies Initiative at the American University School of Public Affairs. codified in the National Assembly”. “But each woman feels a responsibility to use their experience, their background, and tailor it to the role.”

Katherine Jellison, professor of history at Ohio University, said:

“People just love hearing about first ladies because each first lady plays her own role,” Jellison said. “If you just think about the last six years, you’d go from Michelle Obama to Melania Trump to Jill Biden – different women with different life experiences and different ways they have portrayed the role of first lady. core.

“It sparks the public imagination,” she said.

The Women Behind the ‘First Lady’

The show, which premieres Sunday, jumps between three different timelines (1933-1945, 1974-1977 and 2009-2017) to tell the story of the three first ladies.

It’s no surprise that these women have been chosen as the centerpiece of the series, according to experts – considering their significant contributions to American history both inside and outside the White House.

“Eleanor Roosevelt really falls in a category, in that she has been first lady for much longer than anyone else for 12 years because the Constitution was amended,” Jellison said.

Image: Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in "The First Lady".
Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in “The First Lady”.Boris Martin / Showtime

But beyond her long tenure, Eleanor Roosevelt was also a devoted civil rights woman, one who frequently traveled to cities on behalf of her husband, President Franklin D.Roosevelt, who was paralyzed by polio. polio, and a person committed to public service and human rights for nearly two decades, including after she left the White House.

“And of course, she was first lady during the two great crises of the 20th century: the Great Depression and the Second World War,” Jellison said.

On the other hand, Betty Ford came to the White House as the women’s rights movement was gaining traction, McBride said.

“She spoke her mind on issues that were not necessarily relevant to the presidency or to the administration,” she said, citing her advocacy for breast cancer, equal rights and abortion at a time when those issues are – and continue to be – controversial.

Jellison calls Betty Ford “our first television first lady” who can communicate with the American people on difficult topics.

“Betty Ford went on television and spoke from her heart, not from the script, not from the telemetry, and that really connected people to her as a wife, mother and person. real-life women of the 1970s,” says Jellison.

“She presented an image of the first lady that is very relevant to other middle-aged women in America and who have shared many of the same experiences they have gone through.”

And finally, Michelle Obama, who, along with her husband, Barack Obama, has a place in the history books as the first black first lady and president of the United States.

Most notably, Michelle Obama visited the White House during her “first social media presidency,” McBride said.

“She’s put it to good use and it’s helped her … connect with people all over the country, especially African-Americans like herself because she knows their stories,” she said.

On the other hand, Michelle Obama also faced her husband’s political detractors, who criticized her in racist and misleading ways – but she always went above and beyond that, according to Jellison.

“One of her most famous quotes is ‘When they go low, we go up.’ And that’s really how she conducts herself as first lady, and that’s how she continues to conduct herself now,” Jellison said.

During her tenure, Michelle Obama also brought two young children into the White House, while Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt’s children have grown and addressed issues like childhood obesity with an emphasis on health and nutrition child care, Jellison said.

Image: The Story Walker as young Malia Obama, Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Jordyn McIntosh as young Sasha Obama and Evan Parke as Agent Allen in "The First Lady".
The story Walker as young Malia Obama, Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Jordyn McIntosh as young Sasha Obama and Evan Parke as Agent Allen in “The First Lady”.Jackson Lee Davis / Showtime

‘Good TV’

In addition to their positions, the three first ladies featured in the series all share “impressive experiences that make for a good TV show,” Jellison said.

“They have to balance entertainment with truth,” McBride said, expressing concern about how accurately the show will portray these extraordinary women.

But despite that, both first lady experts say they’re glad these women’s lives are exposed to a wider audience – and believe the show will inspire everyone to enjoy their lives. who learns more about other first ladies.

“It’s important to talk about these women, their lives, what they’ve brought to the place, how the country is moving forward and really appreciate them as human beings,” McBride said. .

“What people forget is that they have private lives, they have families, they have sorrows, they have joys, they face everything that we face on a regular basis, but the difference is that they have to do it on the national public stage – and that’s hard.”

McBride and Jellison both added that they look forward to the day the United States has its first gentleman.

In one of the final scenes of the premiere episode, Pfeiffer’s Betty Ford is told that her only job in the administration is to be first lady.

“It’s not a job,” she replied. “That’s my situation.”

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