From Private to Public Life: Rhetoric of First Ladies In Their First Year

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Communication Studies

First Advisor

John C. Meyer

Advisor Department

Communication Studies


Due to the recent increase of interest in the first ladies as discussed by Burke (1987), Truman (1995), and Wertheimer (2004), scholars are discovering that the lives of these White House sorority members were filled with responsibilities beyond those social in nature. These obligations have involved persuasive campaigns over the entire 20 th century such as the "war on drugs," the beautification of America and the White House, and the fight for human rights for women and children worldwide. Furthermore, these duties were not simply developments found recently in the 20th century, but were even common among the ladies of the early 1900s. A rhetorical examination of the 20th century first ladies provides a compass to scrutinize the form and function of speeches delivered by first ladies in the modern era. By examining speeches by selected first ladies through the process of generic description, we can determine their common rhetorical strategies, the differences in their strategies, a pattern of common themes that emerge in their rhetoric, and a justification of a critical genre of first ladies' rhetoric over the course of their first year. A pattern of common themes emerged in the first ladies' rhetoric, common rhetorical strategies were illuminated, the few differences in their strategies were identified, and a justification of a critical genre of first ladies' rhetoric in their first year was made. Specifically, common themes such as mission oriented speeches, political remarks, addresses on social issues, remarks regarding White House issues and other such subjects emerged. The examination of these artifacts distinguished similarities in rhetorical style in terms of time of year, rhetorical situation, emergent themes, and modes of delivery. Although the first ladies' artifacts did generate some differences, they did not exceed the bonds or boundaries of the genre. Finally, this study justified this period of first ladies' rhetoric as a genre by following the steps of criticism developed by Foss (1989) as well as Campbell and Jamieson (1978).