Date of Award

5-2014

Degree Type

Honors College Thesis

Department

History

First Advisor

Pamela Tyler, Ph.D.

Advisor Department

History

Abstract

The First Ladyship is an ambiguous, constitutionally undefined role. The women who have inhabited this role since Martha Washington have had to interpret this role in their own ways and encounter the scrutiny or approval of their country along the way. On this national stage, these women have influenced and been influenced by contemporary conceptions of American womanhood. National discussion shifted to focus prominently on the role of women particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, in the resurgence of an organized women’s rights movement known as Second Wave Feminism.

In this qualitative study, I focused on two First Ladies during this time, Democrat Lady Bird Johnson and Republican Betty Ford, concentrating on their portrayals in the New York Times and the words of the women themselves. Because of personal factors in their own lives and in their relationships with their Presidential husbands, and because of the shifting historical context that propelled feminist discussions to the forefront over time, Johnson and Ford interacted with feminism in different ways. What I discovered was that while Lady Bird Johnson deftly and cautiously navigated a balancing act in her self-presentation between tradition and real influence, Betty Ford was able to build upon this balance and act as a boldly vocal feminist figure while in the White House. This study contributes to the historiography of First Ladies by providing insight into how Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford, as women, acted within the context of the changing roles of women.

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