The Power of the First Lady
The Atlantic|May 2021
How Lady Bird Johnson and Nancy Reagan advanced their husbands’ ambitions—and their own
By Liza Mundy

Of the many images that lingered after the January inauguration of President Joe Biden—the twinkling hand gestures of the poet Amanda Gorman, the rakish eyebrow- waggling of the second daughter, Ella Emhoff—one of the more subtly significant was the scene of Doug Emhoff trying to figure out which side of his wife, Vice President Kamala Harris, to stand on. As the first and second couples moved to ascend the Capitol steps, Emhoff stood to her left; changed his mind and dashed to her right; then sort of bobbled, hesitating, before settling at her left. In an otherwise scripted and sober ceremony, the shuffle injected a spontaneous note as the second gentleman sought his place—not sure quite what that place was.

Welcome to the club, any number of women might have told him. Emhoff joined a long line of female political spouses who have struggled, in a larger sense, to figure out where they should be and what they should do. With a key difference: For wives, the choices have almost always elicited harrumphing from some quarter or another—as the ruckus over Dr. Jill Biden’s use of her well-earned honorific served to remind us. Emhoff’s little side step of uncertainty got raves. “It’s just so cute!” exclaimed Jessica Jones, a viewer who entertainingly narrated the viral moment on TikTok. And she’s right—it was.

As our vision of high-level political partnership gets a reboot (the first-ever first lady who’s not giving up her career, the first-ever second gentleman), it seems a good time to recall just how undefined the role of unelected spouse has been. We tend to date a modern shift to 1992, when Bill Clinton proposed a two-for-the-price-of-one presidency with Hillary. But the unsaid behind-the-scenes partner has been with us a long time, and the deal has never been straightforwardly feminist, as two new biographies of first ladies reveal.

In Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight, Julia Sweig argues that for all her mid-century Betty Crocker flip curls, Bird (as her husband called her) had a “disarmingly modern” partnership with the president. She worked hard to be a “fully engaged participant” in Lyndon B. Johnson’s career, and while his biographers have rarely emphasized her centrality, Johnson himself certainly did. As did she: “Our presidency,” Lady Bird called it. In The Triumph of Nancy Reagan, the Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty likewise invokes a teammate without whom her spouse would never have been governor of California, much less president of the United States. Tumulty makes the case that over the course of Ronald’s political career, Nancy “grew to understand her power.” Wielding their clout, the two first ladies could hardly be a greater study in contrasts—even as they shared a priority: vigilantly protecting their spouse above all, but also their own access and influence.

Born in 1912 and 1921, respectively, Lady Bird and Nancy both belonged to a generation sandwiched between two feminist movements. Both had lively, unconventional mothers who supported women’s suffrage— and yet both girls grew up during a time when second billing (or none) was a wife’s lot, even in the most collaborative marital enterprises. Young Claudia Alta Taylor, nicknamed Lady Bird by a nanny (or playmate—exactly who isn’t certain), was 5 when she lost her mother. The adventurous and well-read Minnie Taylor died after a fall while pregnant. Lady Bird—the youngest child and only daughter of a wealthy East Texas businessman—took refuge, Sweig writes, in a rich “inner life that taught her how to take emotional sustenance from nature and books.” An excellent student, she earned a history degree in 1933 from the University of Texas at Austin, in an era when only a small percentage of women graduated from college; she then spent a year completing a journalism degree. Lyndon Johnson, an up-and-coming congressional staffer, instantly sized her up as the sort of smart, capable partner who would push him and expand his prospects. He proposed at the end of their first date, then launched a full-court press until she yielded after 10 weeks. “The wife, your wife, is the most important asset you’ll have,” he declared.

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