Frank profiles of 45 women who, for the most part, made the best of a “weird job.”
From “mellow” Martha Washington to Michelle Obama (“serious role model”), Krull finds ways of bringing out the distinctive achievements and characters of each presidential mate and selected female relatives. Never one to gloss over rough spots, she conscientiously notes her subjects’ often problematic racial attitudes as well as their responses to their spouses’ affairs—but while portraying the first ladies as products of their times and classes, she also positions nearly all as women who pushed against gender-based expectations and prejudices. (Perhaps betraying expectations of her own, the author cites surveys in 1972 and 2014 that highlight Hillary Clinton’s presidential qualities and leaves space at the end for 2016 election results.) Even lesser lights, such as Sarah Polk (“In another era she might have become a politician herself—for now she could only marry one”) and Florence Harding, whose “reputation might have been stronger had she backed a different man,” shine here as brightly as Jackie, Eleanor, “bubbly, bold, and brave” Dolley Madison, and “drama queen” Mary Lincoln. The author intersperses firsts in women’s history to add hints of broader context. Finished art, mostly individual portraits, not seen.
An inspirational lot, overall, of women who have “enhanced our country in many resplendent ways.” (selected sources, index) (Collective biography. 10-14)