Today, we celebrate the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. The world will watch the first woman of color swear the oath of office for Vice President of the United States. Moments like these often inspire us to think about how we arrived at them and who has helped move us forward. The “firsts” for people who live with discrimination are sometimes bittersweet. So many of the people who paved the way did so in anonymity.
For most of written history, a woman obtained limited power through marriage. Marrying an influential man permitted a woman to take action that had a broader impact. We will never know all of the contributions these women made.
We also acknowledge that some of these women advocated inequitable and inhuman practices. However, striving for a complete record of history means examining the action of all of the actors, and First Ladies were certainly actors. Some of those actions are formidable (Bess Truman wrote significant portions of her husband’s speeches). Some are fun, (Dolly Madison’s vanity made her a trendsetter).
Every Eye is Upon Me
As Kamala Harris takes the power and responsibility of the Vice-Presidency onto her capable shoulders, we take a look at a National Portrait Gallery exhibition that shines a light on America’s First Ladies. Although closed, The National Portrait Gallery is hosting a special exhibition online of the largest collection of portraits of First Ladies ever assembled. “Every Eye is Upon Me” is on display until May 13, 2021. (Cross your fingers that this beautiful museum will open its doors soon).
I had the good fortune to attend a webinar with Dr. Gwendolyn Dubois-Shaw, a curator at the Smithsonian who highlighted some of the portraits and shared both fun facts and the historical significance of these images.
President John Tyler was thirty years older than his wife, Julia Gardner Tyler.
In the movie, Speed, Annie Porter tells Jack Traven, “Relationships based on extreme circumstances never work out.” This turned out not to be the case for Julia Gardner Tyler and President John Tyler. Julia reported that she fell in-love with John Tyler after surviving an explosion on a ship that killed her father. President Tyler brought her such comfort that she decided to marry him. She then had to figure out how to get along with her new stepchildren, one of whom was four years older than her. (Awkward)
Julia is the inspiration for the exhibition name. When she became a first lady, she wrote to her mother, “I very well know, every eye is upon me, my dear mother, and I will behave accordingly.” Her mother must have been relieved because Julia was a bit of a wild child. Her great beauty won her a feature in an advertisement, an accolade so scandalous that her parents sent her to Europe for a year.
Trumpet Player’s Muse
We can also thank Julia for the playing of “Hail to the Chief” when the president enters the room. She asked the band to play the song every time John Tyler entered an event; a tradition that carries on today.
The Obama Portraits are stars
The portraits of President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama doubled attendance to the National Portrait Gallery from 1.5 million to 3 million visitors. However, this post is about first ladies, so step aside Barack. (I’m just kidding. I love you President Obama!)
Michelle Obama wore a dress by Michelle Smith that she designed for her Milly line. This cotton poplin dress is a focal point of the portrait and Michelle selected it because of the strong, geometric patterns. She noted that they reminded her of African-American quilting traditions.
Amy Sherald, the artist, painted Michelle Obama in front of a light blue background. This was an unusual and purposeful choice to take Mrs. Obama out of time and space, to elevate her to a sort of celestial environment. Sherald also chose to paint her brown skin in gray tones, to take race out of the image.
Nancy Reagan is the reason Republicans use the color red.
Nancy Reagan was an actress before she married Ronald Reagan. She knew that red would attract notice and convey authority. Nancy Reagan wanted to be seen. She frequently dressed in a vibrant red shade that was eventually nicknamed, “Reagan Red.” Reagan Red is still the signature color of the Republican party and the reason we identify states as red states when talking politics.
Ambitious Women, Ambitious Clothes
Historically, many first ladies married extremely ambitious men who actually came from lower rungs of society. These women did this on purpose because they were ambitious women. Mary Lincoln was a very ambitious women. She wanted to have influence and often felt unheard. Her frustration was channeled into shopaholic obsession with clothes that spoke for her.
She wore expensive clothing to convey power. For example, she had a portrait done of her black mourning clothes. Dyeing fabric black was extremely expensive. She wanted her portrait to demonstrate social status. However, the reality was far different. After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Mary Lincoln was penniless. President Lincoln’s assets transferred to his son. Mary Lincoln planned a sale of her clothing in order to survive. This step led to a widow’s pension for First Ladies that still exists today.
Vice President of the United States: Another Step Forward
“Every Eye is Upon Me” highlights how women have always influenced events but were never given formal recognition for their contributions. Without that public awareness, mounting effective challenges to bigotry and discrimination becomes harder. Today, Kamala Harris’ swearing-in as Vice President of the United States is embodying the progress and victory over those false beliefs. I look forward to a growing collection of First Gentleman portraits in the future.
Betsy Scotto-Lavino is the Director of Education and Research for The Artistic Fuel Foundation. She is also a Ph.D. student, wife, mother of three, and a nature lover. If you can't find me, I'm probably in the woods.