First Ladies Through History: How Media Reinforces Traditional Femininity

Perhaps no position of female leadership is critiqued more heavily than that of the First Lady of the United States. Traditionally (and often still) regarded as “the nation’s hostess,” the title of First Lady is often accompanied by conventional ideas of femininity and womanhood. As such, the president’s wife is often subject to heavy criticism based on her adherence to or deviation from this ideal. Over the course of the entire history of a nation, the idealized perception of the presidential spouse has seen little change. As shown through media representation of First Ladies throughout history, the portrayal of First Ladies in the media reinforces a heteronormative idea of emphasized femininity for all American women.

Eleanor Roosevelt: “The Reluctant First Lady”


 “My Day” Column, Political Cartoon 1, Political Cartoon 2

Interestingly enough, the earliest presidential spouse on our list is arguably the most subversive in history. During her time as First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt constantly and deliberately broke away from conventional ideas of how a first lady should behave. After FDR won his first presidential election in 1932, Eleanor Roosevelt was “seriously depressed at having to assume the role” due to the emphasis on domesticity that it was traditionally prescribed. (Goodwin, 1994, p. 89-91) This hesitancy subsequently earned her the title of “The Reluctant First Lady.” Throughout FDR’s presidency, she made a conscious effort to defy the traditional idea of a woman’s role in the White House. Roosevelt became the first presidential wife to hold regular press conferences, write recurring newspaper and magazine columns, host a weekly radio show, and speak at a national party convention. She became a controversial First Lady due to her outspoken nature, and as such, became the target of public criticism in the media, particularly in the realm of political cartoons. The first cartoon shown above plays off the “behind every great man” trope, insinuating that Eleanor Roosevelt used her influence to promote a communist agenda through her husband. The second cartoon pokes fun at her frequent use of media outlets, particularly her newspaper column “My Day,” and suggests that she used her husband to provide content for her writing.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1961-1963)

jackie o  Life Magazine

In the years following Eleanor Roosevelt’s time in the White House, which solidified her as a universal icon of feminism, America saw a return to the traditional idea of a First Lady. Eventually, in 1961, Jackie O took the stage, becoming perhaps the most conventionally “ideal” First Lady in history. America fell in love with Jackie and her youthful elegance. The media was infatuated with her appearance, and she soon became a fashion icon. To the press, she was, in every sense of the word, an “ideal” woman. In the issue of Life magazine shown above, she is referred to as JFK’s “appealing wife.” Some scholars have argued that Jackie O’s representation in the media as an idealistic feminine figure “created an unrealistic media expectation for first ladies.” (Beasely, 1986, p. 78-83).

Lady Bird Johnson (1963-1969)

lady bird McCall’s Magazine

Following the assassination of JFK in 1963, Lady Bird Johnson abruptly assumed the role of First Lady. Her pleasing, innocuous demeanor provided some much needed stability and comfort for the American public following a shocking tragedy that divided the nation, and the media often highlighted this aspect of her character. Even though she was considered by some to be “the most effective First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt,” (Inman, 1986) she was not nearly as provocative or controversial as her 1930s predecessor. She was widely portrayed in the media as a portrait of grace and composure.

Pat Nixon (1969-1974)

pat nixon Pat Nixon at the Inaugural Ball: New York Times

Pat Nixon’s time in the White House saw an increased scrutinization of the First Lady’s appearance. The media became obsessed with dissecting her fashion choices, largely due to the high expectations of First Lady fashion that developed following the tenure of Jackie O and Lady Bird Johnson. Pat Nixon’s inauguration gown (shown above) was criticized by Time Magazine, which described the look as “a schoolteacher on her night out.” (Time Magazine, 1970)  In 1969, Women’s Wear Daily went so far as to pick apart Pat’s literal physique, stating that she has a “good figure and good posture,” and “the best-looking legs of any woman in public life today.” (Time Magazine, 1969) In addition to her physical appearance, the media often reported various dissections of her disposition as a woman, describing her with phrases like “dutiful and selfless,” (Burns, 2008, 110-111), and “the perfect wife and mother,” (Time Magazine, 1993). Scholar Lisa Burns argues that as a First Lady, Pat Nixon was “an embodiment of Cold War domesticity, in stark contrast to the second-wave feminism of the time.” (Burns, 2008, p. 107-108)

Nancy Reagan (1981-1989)

nancy reagan People Magazine

When former actress Nancy Reagan entered the White House in January of 1981, the media had already begun to celebrate her incredibly strong marriage with new president, Ronald Reagan. The American people, driven by media coverage, praised her traditional approach to marriage and family, but her Hollywood-elite status was still scrutinized by some media outlets. Throughout Ronald’s presidency, Nancy was attacked for her lavish spending and use of an astrologer to schedule important presidential events. In a time of recession, Nancy’s spending quickly tainted her public image, an $800,000 White House renovation being just one of the expenditures she was criticized for.  However, in 2016, upon Nancy’s passing, she was still regarded as a beloved figure, praised for her feminine strength and respect for traditional values (Walsh, 2016). 

Hillary Clinton (1993-2001)

hillary clinton Time Magazine

Hillary Clinton has been regarded as one of the most criticized and controversial first ladies in American history. Her ambition and political goals have been both praised and condemned from various media sources throughout history. From the combined victimhood narrative and the media-mockery of her post-Monica Lewinsky to the harsh criticisms of both her own presidential races, the media has often had a complex relationship to Hillary’s strength and outspoken nature. Her non-traditional representation of womanhood has made her a massive target for many media outlets, though for most modern-day feminists, she has been lauded as a massive source of inspiration (Stoehr, 2016).

Michelle Obama (2009-2017)

michelle obama Time Magazine

Michelle Obama, like many first ladies before her, has had a complicated relationship with the media. On one hand, her poise, intelligence, and confidence have been praised and celebrated consistently. On the other hand, she has been described as angry and unamerican (Parker, 2012). Discussions of her race have helped frame some of these narratives, particularly falling back onto the “angry black woman” stereotype. However, Michelle Obama also has the distinction of being the first First Lady in office to leverage social media in her favor. By using channels such as Twitter to speak directly to the American people, Michelle Obama had a certain level of control over her image (Newly). Her legacy, which she has continued to control with her recent book Becoming, has largely been positive, with a lasting impression of someone poised, elegant, and strong.

Melania Trump (2017-present)

melania trump Washington Post

Everything about the Trump presidency has strayed toward the non-traditional, but  none more so than his First Lady, Melania. Media portrayal has framed her in various lights, most often as “absent, greedy, and non-supportive” (Wallstrom). Her past expression of sexuality, as well as her absence from the spotlight throughout much of Trump’s presidency, has lead the media to label her as unintelligent and uninvested. Her extravagant wealth has often also been a part of her narrative, as pictured above. From scandals such as plagiarizing a speech from Michelle Obama to the conspiracy theory of “Fake Melania,” in which some theorize that she has been using a body double for important events, the media has had some criticisms of Melania Trump. However, her femininity and appearance have consistently been praised by many media outlets.

For all of our country’s First Ladies, the media has placed an intense focus on what it means to be a woman, especially the nation’s most powerful and visible woman. Everything from appearance to personal poise is scrutinized and remarked on from the time their husband’s campaigns begin to long after they leave office. Non-traditional forms of femininity are often criticized, while traditional values are rewarded. First Ladies, and their portrayal in the media, do have some power in determining what values of womanhood are celebrated and can be a key part in changing the cultural conversations surrounding femininity and it’s expressions. Since the beginning of American history, the wives of our leaders have been framing a societal idea of emphasized femininity and reinforcing the notions of what exactly it means to be a good wife and a good woman.


Works Cited:

Author Unknown. (1969). Redoing Pat. Women’s Wear Daily.

Beasley, M. (1986). Eleanor Roosevelt’s Vision of Journalism: A communications Medium for Women. Presidential Studies Quarterly.

Berin, H. (1970). Pat’s Wardrobe Mistress. Time.

Burns, L. M. (2008). First Ladies and the Fourth Estate: Press Framing of Presidential Wives. DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press.

Goodwin, D. K. (1997). No Ordinary Time. Simon & Schuster.

Inman, W. H. (1986). Claudia Taylor ‘Lady Bird’ Johnson ‘A front row seat to history’.

Newly Paul & Gregory Perreault (2018) The first lady of social media: The visual rhetoric of Michelle Obama’s Twitter images, Atlantic Journal of Communication, 26:3, 164-179, DOI: 10.1080/15456870.2018.1472092

Parker, Kathleen (2012). The misguided portrayal of Michelle Obama. Chicago Tribune.

Stoehr, John (2016). The Sexist Press. US News.

Wallström, Sven (2017). A Critical Discourse Analysis of the media portrayal of Melania Trump as First Lady. Sociologiska institutionen Kandidatuppsats, antal högskolepoäng. Umeå Universitet.

Walsh, Kenneth T. (2016). Nancy Reagan: He Needed Only Her. US News.


2 thoughts on “First Ladies Through History: How Media Reinforces Traditional Femininity

  1. I love that you picked this topic. I think you have a strong flow and a good amount of resources to back up your argument. I like how you compared each first lady by generation, but I do think there are a bit too many first ladies that you’re analyzing to really narrow down your argument. Your thesis is argumentative, but maybe include why this representation of emphasized femininity is a bad thing for American women in your thesis. Overall, I really enjoyed reading your post and the sources you provide are perfect for your argument!


  2. I thought your introductory sentence was a really good opening for what you talked about throughout the rest of the photo essay and what your main thesis was about, proving that through media and photographs, heteronormative, traditional femininity has been emphasized in the first ladies of the United States. With the first images you examined over Eleanor Roosevelt, I thought more textual analysis would have made the argument over those images stronger and more compelling, especially since she did not fit the ideal mold a first lady was expected to prescribe to. You make really good use of your citations throughout the body of your work; however, again with Jackie O’s paragraph, I thought more could be said about her image itself in Life Magazine and how it is a direct reinforcement of traditional femininity and gender roles.

    I think along with the rest of your images, you present a well-researched and well-written background for each of the first ladies and how the media perceived them; however, I think another paragraph with each image would have made your argument stronger if it focused on the image you chose, how it emphasized traditional expectations of femininity, and then how (from the first paragraph) that connected to the media’s portrayals and perspectives on her, particularly if she did not fit the traditional mold a first lady was expected to conform to.


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