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!



1 comment:

  1. What a great post! I so love reading the stories of those couples who had good, solid marriages. Thank you for sharing! And also sharing about your used book find...we love used books, too! Yours sounds like a treasure!