Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
This weekend, first lady Jill Biden is traveling in Eastern Europe, meeting with Ukrainian refugees, humanitarian aid workers and others who are working to assist those impacted by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
As the Biden administration continues to express its unwavering support for Ukraine’s battle to preserve its independence, the first lady’s trip is another opportunity to demonstrate America’s commitment to Ukraine. It also will serve as an important reminder to all American and NATO allies that US commitment to Ukraine will extend well into the postwar period – whenever that might be.
This is not the first time that a first lady has played an important role in the nation’s politics on a matter of international importance. Ever since Martha Washington assumed the position for the first time, many first ladies have tried to find a way to do more than redecorate the White House and host ceremonial receptions.
But they have not done so without challenges. Whenever modern first ladies have tried to step beyond the traditional boundaries of their roles, there has been fierce political backlash against them.
Most famously, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a syndicated columnist who wrote and spoke out on some of the biggest issues of the day – including racial injustice. For her forthrightness, she was viciously attacked throughout the 1930s, on everything ranging from her physical appearance to her relationships with left-wing political figures.
“I have been accused of rudeness to Mrs. Roosevelt,” wrote the newspaper columnist Westbrook Pegler, “when I only said she was impudent, presumptuous and conspiratorial, and that her withdrawal from public life at this time would be a fine public service.” And Pegler was just the tip of the iceberg.
But first ladies – including Roosevelt – persisted nonetheless, often taking strategic overseas trips to assist their husband’s work. In 1943, at the height of World War II, Roosevelt traveled to the South Pacific for a month-long journey. In Sydney, Australia, she made a number of speeches about the role women were playing in the war and on the home front, concluding: “Perhaps here is the germ of an idea that in the postwar period women will be encouraged to participate in all activities of citizenship.”
In November 1990, Barbara Bush, wife of George H.W. Bush, joined her husband on a Thanksgiving trip to Saudi Arabia in the middle of the Gulf War. She proved to be the life of the party, enchanting soldiers and making everyone laugh with her sharp sense of humor. “I rarely hug guns,” she said as her arm brushed against a rifle that was on the arm of a soldier.
“President Bush didn’t come to Saudi Arabia with any guns or missiles today, but he had a much more effective secret weapon – Barbara Bush,” one columnist wrote in The Washington Post. Similarly, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Melania Trump took trips overseas to assist their husbands in promoting their political agendas during their respective presidencies.
First ladies also have been integral to political campaigns. In the fall of 1964, Lady Bird Johnson took a 1,628 mile-tour of eight southern states, meeting with political leaders and speaking in support of Lyndon B. Johnson’s record – even when she encountered crowds who were livid about her husband’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Michelle Obama was one of the most clear-eyed and vocal critics of Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016, offering some of the most powerful speeches and commentary about the stakes that the nation faced with the prospect of him winning office. And at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, she tore into Trump as someone who was “clearly in over his head.”
First ladies have played critical roles in policymaking deliberations. In 1993, President Bill Clinton named Hillary Clinton to be the head of the task force that designed his health care plan. Predictably, she became the vicious target of conservative attacks and mockery in the media, which spoke of her in terms comparable to that of Eleanor Roosevelt. During the health care fight, one cartoon featured Clinton sitting in a high chair, hovering over her husband in the Oval Office, as one adviser whispers to the other: “It still unnerves me a bit.” Although the plan went down in defeat, Clinton’s work helped put forth a new model of health care reform that became a foundation for the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act.
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First ladies have also become champions of significant causes. Lady Bird Johnson was a well-known advocate of the environment and highway beautification. Betty Ford was a strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, which brought her into direct conflict with right-wing activists like Phyllis Schlafly who were mobilizing to defeat it. Meanwhile, Nancy Reagan famously campaigned against drug use, telling the nation’s youth to “Just Say No.”
And, of course, first ladies can serve as advisers, sometimes in dramatic fashion – such as in 1919 when Edith Wilson secretly stepped up after her husband Woodrow Wilson suffered from a debilitating stroke.
What’s clear from history is that first ladies have consistently found ways to use their positions to influence public life – even in the wake of sexism and bigotry. And each time a first lady, such as Jill Biden, currently on her trip to reaffirm US support of Ukraine, takes a role in addressing the challenges of our times, they help build a stronger precedent for a future where the country will not just accept but expect the spouse of the commander-in-chief to use their position to improve American lives.