‘The First Lady’ is a harsh reminder of this dissonant truth
“Women are like teabags. You never know how strong they are until you put them in hot water.” So says Gillian Anderson in the new Showtime series “The First Lady,” in which she — in her portrayal as Eleanor Roosevelt — regularly speaks in aphorisms, at one point providing her husband Franklin (played by Kiefer Sutherland) with his most quotable line, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” And near the end of the first episode, she offers a pithy summary of her own position. Pressed by an aide to attend a meeting because it is her job as First Lady, Roosevelt shoots back, “That’s not a job. That’s my circumstance.”The shifting circumstance of life as First Lady is the thread tying together the three women the series follows: Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama. All three chafe at the central contradiction of the role, one that ushers them to the center of national power not through their achievements but through their husbands’, offering new avenues of influence while strictly policing how they use that influence.
Yet even as these First Ladies are linked in their struggle to navigate their “circumstance” (aka unpaid labor), the rights and opportunities American women gained in the years between Roosevelt and Obama also fundamentally transformed the First Lady’s role. It was transformed from a rare path to power into an anachronistic — and possibly unnecessary — position.
The series is more interested in the continuities than the differences, in part because of its structure. The show constantly bounces from the 1930s to the 1970s to the 2000s (and sometimes even introducing flashbacks to other times, like when it cuts to the 1880s to show the funeral of Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother). To provide some cohesiveness to an otherwise fractured approach, the series stresses the ways the women are similar: their ambivalence about the office, their relationships with their mothers and daughters and mother-in-laws. But that approach obscures the radically different contexts in which they were working.
When Roosevelt became First Lady in 1933, women were only just beginning to gain access to leadership roles in national government. A few decades earlier, Julia Lathrop became the first woman to head a federal agency when she was appointed to lead the newly formed Children’s Bureau (nearly all leadership roles filled by women would be associated with the bureau due to its connections to children and maternal health). And the same year Roosevelt became First Lady, Frances Perkins became the first woman to become a member of the cabinet when she was sworn in as secretary of labor.In that environment, Roosevelt was already unusual: She had been a political partner to her husband since he was first elected to the state senate in New York in the 1910 election. “The First Lady” shows her advising her husband, encouraging him to remain in politics after polio left him partially paralyzed and finding spaces for activism even in her early days as First Lady.
Anderson brings some of the steeliness she performed as Margaret Thatcher in “The Crown” — though here it feels more natural, despite the prosthetic teeth and tucked chin meant to amplify her resemblance to Roosevelt. That steeliness was a requirement for Roosevelt, who regularly outpaced her husband as she pressed for issues like civil rights for Black Americans, the protection of refugees and New Deal programs for women.
The first episode also hints at how Roosevelt would transform the office of First Lady, at least during her tenure. Starting during her husband’s first term and continuing for decades after her time in the White House, she wrote a syndicated newspaper column six days a week, called “My Day.” As First Lady, she held regular press conferences and advised her husband on policy matters. Though she had very little formal institutional power, she transformed the office of the First Lady into one capable of wielding an enormous amount of cultural and political sway in an era where few other platforms allowed that kind of reach.
Roosevelt’s activism as First Lady was controversial at the time, and did not become a typical model for those who followed. (Nor did Secretary Frances Perkins; despite her successful tenure, only one other woman, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Oveta Culp Hobby, would serve in the cabinet before the 1970s.)
By the time Betty Ford, played by Michelle Pfeiffer in a captivating and nuanced performance, became First Lady, the role had largely reverted to one of hosting and entertaining, with occasional small projects defined by their links to domestic life.Ford never quite fit into these constraints of the role. The least famous of the three First Ladies in the series, and the only one who escapes caricature, she is introduced dancing by herself in a pink quilted robe, cocktail in hand, real estate brochures littering the floor.
She is in the midst of dreaming of retirement and a more private life just days before her husband is unexpectedly plucked from Congress to become Richard Nixon’s vice president after Spiro Agnew’s abrupt resignation the same day he pleaded no contest to a charge of federal tax evasion (in return for the dropping of political corruption charges).
But as her husband became vice president and then, just as unexpectedly, President when Nixon himself resigned at the culmination of the Watergate scandal, Ford began expanding the First Lady role in ways that reflected and drew energy from the second-wave feminism.
The show hints at this: In a speech delivered before other congressional wives as her husband was being considered for vice president, she shares — champagne glass at hand — that rumors her husband had sought psychiatric help were in fact meetings he had with her psychiatrist, a shocking admission in an era when mental-health treatment carried a heavy stigma.
Amid a growing movement that proclaimed “the personal is political,” Ford’s decisions to disclose to the public not only her psychiatric treatment but her addiction to alcohol and pills and her breast cancer diagnosis were not just confessional but political acts. So, too, was her decision to speak out on politics.
She advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights, two issues that were splitting the Republican Party in the 1970s. In that way, she used her role as First Lady, a position established as part of a set of traditional assumptions about women and their work, to promote feminist ideas.