By Taylor Markey

In honor of Women’s History Month, Washington, DC History & Culture hosted its first The First Ladies exhibit tour at the Smithsonian American History Museum March 10.

Robert Kelleman, founder of Washington, DC History & Culture, led the tours — one started at 10 a.m. and another at 3:30 p.m. There was a $5 pre-registration fee. The proceeds support the group’s non-profit programs, according to the Facebook event.

“There’s a million tours and lectures and different types of activities in D.C., but this is such a place with a deep, rich history and a really broad expanse of interesting things that happened here,” Kelleman said. “I always thought there should be a tour on this exhibit … I don’t really feel like these women have been given the credit that they deserve.”

Kelleman kicked off the tour with an icebreaker, which included the question, “If they had a Mount Rushmore for first ladies, who do you think they should put on it?”

The group walked around the American Presidency exhibit first and ended with The First Ladies.

The tour touched on facts about the first ladies that are not normally considered.

One of the first themes covered was the importance of these women and their statuses before becoming first ladies.

For example, Martha Washington came from a family with money, but her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, was also very wealthy. After he died, Washington became the wealthiest woman in Virginia at that time, Kelleman said.  

“George Washington: okay, great guy; sure, he would’ve been successful on his own,” Kelleman said. “Would he have been president if he wouldn’t have married her? Hmmm I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not.”

Kelleman mentioned the influence media had on how people viewed the first ladies as well. He showed a few magazine covers with the same, or very similar, photos of Jacqueline Kennedy and those images are what get stuck in our heads, Kelleman said.

Kelleman then showed a cover of Life Magazine from 1959, where Jacqueline Kennedy is in the front and John F. Kennedy is in the back of the photo.

“It’s interesting that the photographer and the editors chose this one to be on the cover because there’s other ones where he’s in front and she’s in the back,” Kelleman said. “But I bring this up from a media standpoint … How many similar pictures of this can you think of … of previous presidents and first ladies where they’re kind of posing in like a residential or home setting?”

He mentioned many photos like this existed at that time. Kelleman said the Kennedys did not “accidentally become kind of media sensations so to speak.”

He brought up Jacqueline’s previous job as a journalist and how John worked briefly for a journalist and his father was a Hollywood producer.  

The family knew a little bit about media, Kelleman said.

“Part of this was kind of an image shaping,” Kelleman said. “I work in marketing, and we would call this now ‘branding,’ but back then they didn’t have that term.”

He brought up the challenges first ladies face, such as president assassinations, media criticism, “living in a fish bowl,” the loss of privacy and affairs.

“We tend to think about the death of a president in kind of political terms or historical terms … But these are also very personal moments,” Kelleman said.

Kelleman described a scene from the PBS film “American Experience: Murder of a President,” which is about James Garfield, that shows how the deaths of presidents affect their wives.

“He’s laying in bed and … his wife basically comes and lays on top of him,” Kelleman said. “And she starts crying her eyes out saying, ‘Oh God, why are they taking you from me?’ ‘I wish I could go with you’ … stuff like that.”

Tour group attendee, Barbara Kiker, 65, of Springfield, Virginia, said a big takeaway was “how extensive the collection is here and how priceless it is and what our heritage is.”

“I loved the stories of the first ladies and seeing the gowns,” Kiker said. “I didn’t know a lot of the grief that the first ladies had to deal with and still be very courageous.”

Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of WikiCommons.

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