There’s an old adage that states something to the effect of behind every great man is a great woman. That couldn’t be more wrong. Women don’t stand behind any man. The proper adage should state that NEXT TO every great man is an equally great woman. PBS’ special, The First Ladies is proof of that. This two-disc, seven hour special from the network’s “American Experience” program presents five of the first ladies who have stood by their husbands and showed that they were just as great as their husbands at the same time.
Among the most influential of the five First Ladies profiled in this double disc set is the one and only Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt had quite the life. The profile on Mrs. Roosevelt takes up a large portion of the set’s seven hours, clocking in at just under two and a half hours. It takes viewers on a journey from her birth to her death. That’s right. Her story doesn’t end when her husband died. Throughout her life, Eleanor Roosevelt showed that she took some advice from her uncle (by marriage) Teddy very seriously. Teddy told her when she was young, that she should never show fear. She obviously took that to heart, as she became a fearless advocate for civil rights and women’s rights. She became so active that she was under constant surveillance by the F.B.I. Even after discovering that her husband, FDR, had had an affair with another woman, she showed no fear. She stood up to him, and essentially forced him to give up his affair. One can’t help but admit that probably if not for Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR might not have held office for three terms. As The First Ladies shows, hers was a very powerful influence on public opinion of her husband. She definitely didn’t stand behind FDR. She stood beside him in every sense of the word.
Just as Eleanor Roosevelt stood by and worked right by her husband, so did Nancy Reagan. Nancy developed a reputation outside the White House as being little more than another version of a certain other former first lady. But behind the scenes, she was quite the hard working and serious individuals. And according to Mrs. Reagan herself, she was right there at the late President’s side because she was interested in the people that surrounded him. She played a direct role in the people in her husband’s cabinet, as well as other factors. As one person interviewed for this segment noted, she was almost sort of a Mary Todd Lincoln figure in that she seemed to want to make the White House itself a reflection of the power of the position of President. Just one example of that was how Mrs. Reagan raised private funding to purchase new china for hosting state dinners, and for re-decorating certain rooms of the White House. As much as she worked behind the scenes, The First Ladies is much like The Presidents in that it shows no bias. It shows everything that made her an influential First Lady. In the same breath, it also shows the view that the public had of her because of her personality in front of the cameras. That reputation was not exactly a good one. She and her husband developed the reputation as socializing only with the super rich, which was contradictory to the job of the President. The job of the President and First Lady is to work for Americans. So spending so much time with the people who helped to get him elected made both Mr. and Mrs. Reagan look very bad. But again, this feature pulls no punches. It even shows Nancy’s reaction to those views. It offers archived footage showing her poking fun at herself as a result of those personal media opinions. That archived footage helps to paint a much broader picture of Nancy Reagan as First Lady.
The archived footage and interviews culled for each segment in The First Ladies go a long way toward making all seven hours of this special all the more informative and interesting. The First Ladies may only be comprised of two discs. But being that it has seven hours worth of material, and focuses on five of the most influential First Ladies in our nation’s history, there is enough material here for an entire semester’s worth of classes both in public schools and college level courses. It’s an interesting piece of American history both inside and outside the classroom. And it can be ordered online now via PBS’ online store, http://www.shoppbs.org.
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