Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Lucy Hayes: Setting the Stage for the Change from Ball Gown to Business Suit


If you asked someone today what a first lady does, they would probably mention a lady who tries to better America by picking a non-partisan social issue and being a spokesperson on that issue (think Just Say No with Nancy Reagan or childhood obesity with Michele Obama.) So far in my first lady readings, though, their role has been as hostess of receptions and parties at the White House. At what point and with which lady is that transition made from ball gown to business suit?

Lacy Hayes is certainly not that first lady, but through her first lady experience I can see that the stage is being set in the American public for a first lady with a platform. Lucy Hayes was a religious woman and she and Rutherford agreed on a temperance policy for their own family and home. They kept that policy in the White House and choose not to serve alcohol in the White House. The American Temperance movement was SO excited! With Rutherford’s election they thought they would certainly now have a national spokeswoman and really make some progress with their push for prohibition. To their great disappointment and despite their constant pleading, Lucy refused to join or lead any temperance group. She felt that her decision should not be pushed onto others. But she would be faithful to her personal convictions.


The leadership position Lucy did accept was after her White House days.  She became National President of Women’s Home Missionary Society of Methodist Episcopal Church. This role fit Lucy since she was devoted to the church. And although she left most of the work to the vice-president and periodically tried to resign, she did give speeches in this role. In 1888, her last speech before her death, her speech concerned the southern Negros “still in chains to the ignorance and vice of generations of bondage,” the crime against women in Utah (polygamy of the Mormons), the increase of immigrants, and the hardship and poverty of preachers in the wilderness areas. The Missionary Society was effective. There were 40,000 members and supported 42 missionaries.


Lucy had always been a person who lived her convictions. Her biography, First Lady: The Life of Lucy Webb Hayes by Emily Apt Geer, actually included an incident from her childhood. As a young school girl there were some German immigrants in her school. At recess the other children would pick on them and were mean to them but Lucy took them away from the other children and taught them to cut paper dolls. How brave! Living out what was right even if it was not what others were doing.
Rutherford and Lucy Hayes wedding portrait

Rutherford and Lucy had a happy, close marriage. Rutherford’s love letters and diary entries are delightful! They had mutual friends and knew of each other when Lucy was a teen. Rutherford’s mother and sister bothered him about Lucy Webb and prodded him to get to know her. They spent some time together while Lucy was in college, but Rutherford was interested in someone else at the time. Then both Rutherford and Lucy were in a wedding party for mutual friends and that seemed to jump start their romance. Rutherford wrote great love letters and also delightful diary entries. For example: “I guess I am a great deal in love with- Her low sweet voice…her soft rich eyes…intellect she has, too- a quick spritely one, rather than a reflective profound one-by George I am in love with her!” Lucy did not write near as much as Rutherford did but when she did it was sweet like “I must confess Dear R you are more frequently in my thoughts than I ever imagined possible… If only you knew what a great man you are.”


She had five children who lived past toddlerhood. Three boys were young adults by 1876 when the Hayes’ came to the white house. The other 2, a girl and a boy, were elementary schoolers.

Her family was her priority and her life. It was a happy and supportive family.


Lucy had a couple of firsts. She was the first first lady to graduate from college. She was the first to have a telephone and running water in the White House. She was also the first FLOTUS (so far as I can tell from biographies) to have her babies delivered by a doctor. That doctor was her brother!


In June of 1889, Lucy passed away of a stroke while she was sitting in her rocking chair sewing in their home. She was 57.


In Lucy’s life time I see that at least some of the American public is asking for the First Lady to have a platform or political project of her own. Although she did not do so as First Lady, she did have a leadership role in an organization after the White House. So I see the role of First Lady one step further away from the ball gown and towards the business suit approach to the modern first lady.



p.s. I bought my copy of the biography on, a used copy. It was an ex-library book, but it was signed by the author and there was a newspaper photo taped to the back page of when the author came to this library and presented her new book to the library and gave a speech on Lucy Hayes. What a great used book find!



Monday, May 5, 2014

The Many Adventures of Julia Grant

  One of the funny things about reading through the first ladies in chronological order is the overlap of history that I get to read. Because each biography contains the person's whole life I read the same time period in history over and over again. This is the seventh time I have read through the Civil War, and I will read through it again a couple more times. However, Varina Davis and Julia Grant's life are the pinnacle of the Civil War. Both ladies led action-packed lives but Julia Grant's life was much happier mostly due to a marriage of two people in partnership which is something Varina Davis longed for but never got. Julia Grant was also able to bear up under criticism which again may partially be due to her partnership in marriage but also because Julia had had so much practice dealing with criticism. Julia was also always ready for the next adventure.  I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall and hear what these two ladies talked about when they befriended each other later in their lives when they were widows living in New York.  I like to picture Varina saying "Oh, Julia, you are so blessed to have had such a loving, attentive husband. That is what I longed for but it was not to be."

When Ulysses' Grant first came around Julia's family's place it was to visit her brother, a West Point classmate. Ulysses was scrawny and according the Julia's father wouldn't amount to anything. However, Julia and her mother saw something special in him. They thought he would become a great man. Julia's father would not be persuaded and he left the two young people hanging for years before he would give consent to be married. Julia was apparently her father's favorite and she knew how to deal with his critical tongue and how to whittle him down to get what she wanted. Dealing with criticism is something she had to deal with her whole life and I believe this early practice was beneficial to her in preparing her for the public. After Ulysses had been gone fighting for many years away from his wife he just couldn't stand being apart anymore.He retired from military service and farmed including clearing his land and hauling the wood to town to sell. Many men looked down on the Grants at their farming and place in life. They were very poor, but very happy! Again, they pressed on against criticism for what they wanted. When Ulysses rejoined the military, and worked his way up to General there was even more criticism this time in the public realm in the media. His time in the White House is of course surrounded by critics. Even after Ulysses' death Julia continued to fight criticism. For example, Dr. Douglas who nursed Ulysses in his last months later ended up in a charity hospital. There was lots of media criticism of Julia. How could she let this dear doctor go to a charity hospital? Why didn't she pay for his care? (Side note: There was a brief mention of Dr. Douglas's wife setting up a boarding house in Bethlehem, PA, which is close to my home. I've got the South Bethlehem Historical Society on the case tracking down the house.)

Although the criticism effected Julia and she paid attention to what her family, her neighbors, and later the media were saying, the criticism never paralyzed her or utterly defeated her like it did to some other first ladies. This may be due to the fact that she was used to it. And she and Ulysses supported each other. They seemed like they were best friends who confided in each other and supported each other. That kind of support and intimacy in your marriage can outweigh the naysayers outside your home.

Julia Grant

The other thing that struck me about Julia Grant was her love of adventure! When she and Ulysses were first courting they loved to ride horses together through the woods of her family's property. They even happened upon an injured slave on one of their rides and jumped right into the role of first responder caring for the slave and even visiting him later to see that he was healing well. When Ulysses' fought in the Civil War, Julia stayed with him in the army camps as much as she could. 

Most adventurous of all was the Grant's world tour after their two terms in the White House. Other presidents had certainly visited Europe before, but this was much more. After Europe they visited Egypt, Middle East, India, China, Japan, and were thinking about visiting Australia but decided against it and went to California slowly making their way back east. They were gone for two years and were treated like royalty with big parties and receptions wherever they went. The American press closely followed their trip. No one had done anything quite like this before and they loved it all! Julia had a love for new experiences and adventure which I admire. Again, her happy marriage made this adventure possible and pleasant. If you didn't enjoy the company of your spouse there is no way you would want to travel around the world for two years limited to only his company.

The biography I read of Julia was The General's Wife by Ishbel Ross. The book accurately told the story of their lives but lacked historical reflection on Julia's significance as a First Lady. As the title suggests, the author mostly concentrated on Julia as a military wife, although even that lacked historical reflection. The most compelling biographies  give a complete look at the whole person, flaws and all. This book simply told the story. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

First Lady of the Confederacy; Varina Davis's Civil War by Joan Cashin

I don't have a car horn that plays "Dixie" and I don't hang a confederate flag in my upstairs window as a curtain so why did I choose to read a biography of the First Lady of the Confederacy?

Varina Davis's name kept popping up in the biographies of the first ladies that I've read so far! The first time I read her name was in Julia Tyler's biography And Tyler, Too. Varina and Julia were in the same social circles in Richmond when it was the confederate capital. Varina called Julia "my beautiful step mother." (Tyler's grandson married Varina's younger sister.) Julia sent Varina gifts of shoes and clothing for her and her children while Jefferson Davis was imprisoned post-war. 

Jefferson Davis had married Zachary Taylor's daughter but after only three months of marriage Sarah Knox Taylor Davis died. Years later, when the Taylor's were in the White House, Senator Jefferson Davis and Varina were in Washington DC, and were very close with the family including the reclusive Margaret Taylor. Varina was even at President Taylor's bedside when he died in office.

Joan Cashin in First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War also noted that Varina had a relationship with Jane Pierce. And later in life as a widow and living in New York, Varina struck up a friendship with the widowed Julia Grant. 

Before reading her biography I assumed Varina would have been enthusiastic about the confederacy and her husband's work and cause. But now I see Varina as a dutiful, loyal wife who publicly embodied the quote from another civil war era woman "my husband is my country." 

Varina married Jefferson Davis while she was young and became a plantation mistress. She felt lonely in her home at Natchez, Mississippi and Jefferson was often gone on political trips. The happiest times in Varina's life was her time in Washington DC as a Senator's wife. Varina was well-educated, well-read, and a witty conversationalist. People from all parties enjoyed spending time with her. Since Jefferson Davis was more boss to Varina than companion, she relied on the women friends she made in this time in her life for the rest of her life regardless of whether they were Northern or Southern.

Varina had Northern roots. Her grandfather Howell was the first governor of New Jersey and she was schooled in Philadelphia. She remained close to her northern relations.

There are hints in her early letters that she did not agree with succession and thought it was a hopeless cause. There are other places in her letters where she supports the confederacy. But really, what choice did she have? It would not do to have the First Lady unsupportive of her husband and her country. What else could she do but put on her public duty face and press on?

Even if he wasn't the president, the husband Jefferson Davis would not had been easy to support. He did not consult her about anything in life like where they would live, children's schooling, etc. She just had to wait for his instructions and then follow them. As a second wife she lived in the shadow of his "perfect" first wife. Post-war Varina was in England with the children while Jefferson had gone back to the south to find work, something that was hard for him to do. In the meantime he began an adulterous affair and continued to put off bringing Varina back to the states! She could do nothing but wait for his instructions to come which he was not in a hurry to do. When this affair fizzled out on the woman's part, Jefferson decided to write his memoirs and did so while living in a rich widow's home while she acted as his personal secretary. Finally Jefferson brought Varina live with him in the widow's house! How awkward! Yet through all of this Varina remained loyal to him. There is no hint she had any attachment or attraction to any other man. 

I read in a foreword to a Robert Frost book that to have an idea is different from entertaining an idea. Varina seems to have had ideas contrary to a woman's typical role in her time and place, but it didn't seem like she entertained or fully developed her ideas and beliefs. For example, as a plantation mistress she had written to someone that she thought it would be better to treat slaves with kindness. Wow! What if she would have entertained that idea? She might have ended up an abolitionist! But I can understand her predicament: what was the point if she could not act on her own ideas and thoughts but was limited to living out her husband's ideas and beliefs?

Varina as a widow writing for Joseph Pulitzer in New York

After Jefferson Davis died in 1889, Varina moved to New York. She supported herself by writing for Joseph Pulitzer, her friend. The rest of her days, Varina defended herself against angry confederates who were appalled that the First Lady was living in the North! She defended herself explaining that she needed to support herself and in New York was where the writing jobs were. 

In 1900, she was assigned to an article on Ulysses Grant. The article gave her opportunity to publicly declare that the south should not have succeeded and could have worked with the Union for state's rights. And that God in his wisdom allowed the North to win the war. Freed of her husband-country, towards the end of her life, Varina courageously, publicly declared her own ideas and thoughts! 

Varina remained in New York until her death in 1906.