Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, was a target of criticism during the Civil War.

Editor’s Note: Carl Sferrazza Anthony is an author and historian on the political and social roles of first ladies.

Story highlights

Carl Anthony says a new book about the Obamas points up tough job of first lady

He says job is societal minefield; Michelle Obama worries she's cast as an "angry black woman"

He says first ladies have long endured stereotypes, been used for political jabs at their spouses

Anthony: Hurtful remarks about Obama may shame people into leaving first ladies alone

CNN  — 

In “The Obamas,” the new book causing a stir with its speculation about the extent of the first lady’s political influence, author Jodi Kantor recounts an anecdote: A young schoolgirl tells Michelle Obama that she hopes to someday become a president’s wife herself one day. “Doesn’t pay well,” Mrs. Obama wittily cracks.

Truth be told, pay is the least of the drawbacks of being a first lady. The unelected, unaccountable and unofficial position has been challenging presidential spouses for more than two centuries now. I’ve spent years researching and interviewing first ladies, but it was Hillary Clinton who best crystallized for me the essential reality of what it means to be first lady: “Who I really am as a person is ultimately less important to the public than what they want me to represent as a persona.”

This was as true for mental health care reform advocate Rosalynn Carter in the 1970s as it was for the happy hostess Julia Grant a century earlier.

Michelle Obama articulated her own frustration with this the other day, for seeming, she said, to have been cast as “some kind of angry black woman.”

There is truth in Mrs. Obama’s observation; her historic status as the first African-American first lady has made her at times a target for unfair stereotype and very ugly treatment.

But casting the first lady as “the other” – that is, outside the concept of the Anglo-Saxon as acceptably “American” – has a long history. Almost a century ago, when the press widely reported that Edith Wilson was from the “Red Bolling family,” as the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Princess Pocahontas, even serious journalists ignored the fact that it meant only one of her 512 ninth-generation ancestors was a Native American. Instead, it prompted members of the public to send her Native American items like a beaded belt and write to government officials warning that it was illegal for the first lady to be served alcohol.

As late as the 1960 election, when the Catholicism of Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy finally broke through the nation’s historic anti-papist sentiment, the campaign of his opponent, Richard Nixon, soft-pedaled his wife’s ethnic and religious background. Not only was Pat Nixon the daughter of a German immigrant mother, but also of an Irish Catholic father.

Kennedy’s campaign may not have been able to conceal that Jacqueline Kennedy was Catholic too, but at least her “Bouvier” maiden name offered legitimate exotic cover for the larger reality of her background: She had only one French paternal great-grandparent, and her “Lee of Virginia” mother was not of the famous blue-blood clan, but rather had briefly lived in the Old Dominion for a college term and was as Irish as the Kennedys.

Mamie Eisenhower? Despite her widely distributed Swedish Christmas cookie recipe, even she never acknowledged her grandparents as immigrants from Sweden.

At other points, societal judgments of the first ladies served well as veiled partisan attacks on their husbands. In an earlier time, the worldly, abolitionist Mary Lincoln of the wealthy Kentucky Todd clan would have been idealized as a Southern belle hostess. But married to the Union’s president during the Civil War, she was maliciously caricatured as a racist secretly loyal to the Confederacy.

And William McKinley, realizing that disclosure of his wife Ida’s epilepsy would fix her with a label of “insanity,” avoided the ignorant presumption by asserting that she was an “invalid,” as evidenced by her use of a wheelchair or cane.

The 1828 campaign editorials shaming Rachel Jackson as morally unfit because her first marriage had ended in divorce were central to the character attacks on her husband, Andrew Jackson.

Nearly 100 years later, such judgment was still so strongly feared for its political liability that Florence Harding outright lied to the press with her claim of having been widowed by her first husband, not divorced. By 1976, however, Betty Ford’s first marriage ending in divorce was not an issue, and neither was the earlier divorce of presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.

As time moves on and American life and demographics evolve, so too will the perceptions of wives in the White House. However, hurtful remarks or hateful racism aimed at the current first lady may feel to Americans of many different backgrounds so shaming as to force a tipping point in history. One can hope it will finally help reduce the rhetoric of future generations about presidential spouses based on their origins, appearance – even gender.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carl Sferrazza Anthony.