News & Politics

American University Now Has an Academic Position to Study First Ladies

It’s part of a wave of interest in presidential spouses.

Photograph of Anita McBride and Laura Bush courtesy of Anita McBride.

Has America already had its first female President? That’s the premise of the hit podcast Edith!, a fictionalized look at the period when Edith Wilson may have quietly run the country while her husband, Woodrow Wilson, recovered from a stroke. The podcast is one of many new works this year highlighting the historically underestimated women who have served as First Lady, including Julia Sweig’s book and podcast about Lady Bird Johnson and Karen Tumulty’s biography of Nancy Reagan. In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s presidential run and Michelle Obama’s arena-packing book tour, First Ladies now seem to be having a moment.

Recently, word came of another entrant in the growing field of East Wing studies: an academic center devoted to the close examination of presidential partners. American University has announced the First Ladies Association for Research and Education (FLARE), which is designed to steer intellectual attention toward that critical unelected White House position.

The effort is helmed by Anita McBride, who was Laura Bush’s chief of staff from 2005 to 2009, and six other professors, researchers, and historians. FLARE plans to publish an academic journal and produce podcasts, as well as organize conferences featuring professors, journalists, historians, and former First Ladies. “We talk a lot in this country about inclusive history, and this is a role in our history that deserves to be included,” says McBride. “Often you’ll find, peeling back the layers, that they really have been leaders.”

That idea characterizes much of the new scholarship on presidential spouses. Tumulty, a Washington Post columnist, makes the case that Nancy Reagan contributed significantly to US/Soviet arms-control efforts. Sweig’s Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight draws on 123 hours of diary recordings from Johnson’s White House years to portray a savvy political strategist who was intimately involved in campaign and policy discussions.

One potential flaw in the FLARE concept: Its name could soon be out of date, because at some point a woman will be elected to our highest office and there could be a First Gentleman. (FGARE just doesn’t have the same ring to it.) “I really see it as a gender-neutral role,” says McBride. “How will that office name even change? We don’t know yet. But we’ll adapt and we’ll tell their story, too.”

This article appears in the August 2021 issue of Washingtonian.

Rosa is a senior editor at Bitch Magazine. She’s written for Washingtonian and Smithsonian magazine.