French porcelain dinner plate, fruit basket, and dessert plate from the Polk state china service. Courtesy National Museum of American History.

 

Archived exhibitions are no longer available for booking but are maintained as a virtual record of past Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) programs.

Since the time of Martha Washington, America’s first ladies have fascinated the nation. Unelected and unpaid, they occupy a position of power defined as much by their own personalities and interests as by public perceptions and social expectations.

Americans expect the first lady to be a symbol of home, family, and womanhood— although the meaning of those ideals changes with every generation. She is also a political partner, from the campaign trail to White House receptions. While some first ladies support the presidency behind the scenes; others use their title to effect change in their own right. But too much independence brings criticism that she is arrogant, power-hungry, or unladylike . Whether remembered through history books or viewed as contemporaries, the women of the White House remain of interest long after they leave Washington.

First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image examines the uniquely American institution of “first lady.” From the exuberant Dolley Madison and troubled Mary Todd Lincoln, to the humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt and the intriguing wives of our recent presidents, the exhibition celebrates the remarkable individuals who have occupied this demanding post.

Developed by noted historian Edith P. Mayo, curator of the permanent exhibition of the same title at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, First Ladies presents more than 150 beautiful and important objects from the Smithsonian’s rarely traveled First Ladies Collection. Highlights include more than two centuries of elegant inaugural and evening gowns, White House furnishings and china, photographs and portraits, and campaign and personal memorabilia. Biographical and interpretive panels, exhibition videos, and audio recordings of influential radio addresses further document the unique marks our first ladies have left upon American history.

A memorable, one-of-a-kind exhibition, First Ladies recounts the exciting sweep of American presidential and cultural history, while offering a rarely examined account of women’s political history in the United States.

“I do not believe that being First Lady should prevent me from expressing my views . . . Being ladylike does not require silence.” — Betty Ford

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Contents Approximately 150 artifacts (including 10 gowns), documents, photographs, political memorabilia, and personal items used by the first ladies; audiovisual components; text panels; labels
Supplemental

Companion book, brochures, educational resources, PR materials, speaker list

Size 5,000 sq. feet (465 sq. meters)
Category History & Culture
Shipping Prorated, SITES-designated carrier
Toured Through August 2006

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Tour Itinerary

Dates Host Institution Status
11/20/04 2/13/05 The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future, Dallas, TX Booked
3/12/05 6/5/05 The New-York Historical Society, New York, NY Booked
7/2/05 9/25/05 Durham Western Heritage Museum, Omaha, NE Booked
10/22/05 1/15/05 Jimmy Carter Presidential Library Museum, Atlanta, GA Booked
2/11/06 5/7/06 Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, MO Booked
6/3/06 8/27/06 Union Station, Kansas City, Kansas City, MO Booked
9/22/06 3/11/07 Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center Booked
5/12/07 8/6/07 Ohio Historical Center, Columbus, OH Booked
10/5/07 12/31/07 National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, PA Booked

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Related Publications

First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image by Edith P. Mayo and Lisa Kathleen Graddy;Scala Publishers Ltd. in association with the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Behring Center, and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service; 2004; $9.95

The first lady occupies a unique position in American politics, playing influential roles as the nation’s hostess, the president’s social and political partner, and an advocate for social causes. First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image, the companion book to a major new SITES exhibition, combines text and more than 80 color and b&w images of gowns and clothing, personal belongings, White House and campaign memorabilia, and the first ladies themselves. Part of the Scala 4-fold series (pages open out horizontally and vertically), the book includes a timeline of the first ladies.

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Press Release

7.25.04

Role and Image of the First Lady Explored in Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition

Our first ladies have fascinated generations of Americans, influenced politics and style, advocated for social causes and navigated an unpaid, unelected and difficult role. In a rare opportunity, artifacts from the first ladies collection will be leaving the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Behring Center, to begin a nationwide tour.

Based on one of the Smithsonian's most visited permanent exhibitions, "First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image" will premiere at The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 20. The exhibition will remain on view through Feb. 13, 2005, and then continue on a national tour through 2006.

Organized by the National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), "First Ladies" is made possible by A&E Network.

The exhibition-featuring first ladies' gowns and clothing, personal belongings, White House furnishings, political campaign materials, and other historical items-examines the demanding duties of the presidential partner and national hostess, explores how her role has evolved from ceremonial partner to one of international celebrity and recognized political power and illustrates the importance of the first lady's public image to the success of a presidential administration.

"Throughout our history, the first lady has been a central figure in extending political roles for women and gaining acceptance for women in public life," says Edith Mayo, curator emeritus at the National Museum of American History. "As the most visible women in America, the first ladies have evolved from the president's social and ceremonial partners to advocates of social causes and political allies in their own right. This evolution places the first lady at the center of both presidential history and women's history."

The nation's expectations of the first ladies reflect American ideals of home, family, and womanhood-ideals that change with every generation. Some first ladies remained within the boundaries of what was considered a proper role for women in their day. Others challenged and expanded those boundaries, subtly or openly.

The exhibition is comprised of more than 150 objects organized into four sections that reveal the historical roles of the first lady: "Inventing the Role," "Political Role," "Public Image" and "Life After the White House." Martha Washington's amber necklace, Mary Todd Lincoln's silver tea service, Eleanor Roosevelt's gown from the 1945 inaugural reception, a signature black pants suit from Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign and pro-literacy materials sponsored by Laura Bush are among the items in the exhibition. Four audiovisual stations and one radio address kiosk provide further background and give a voice to the women who served in this national role. A&E is producing the video components, as well as an online educator's guide.

The national traveling exhibition is complemented by a small-format, full-color book. First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image will be published in December by Scala Publishers. For more information, visit www.scalapublishers.com.

A&E Network brings viewers the art of entertainment through a unique combination of three genres - biography, documentary and drama. A&E offers a diverse mix of programming ranging from original movies, to relevant documentary specials and series, including the Emmy Award-winning series Biography®, to dramatic series and contemporary performances.

A Smithsonian Affiliate, The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future is the nation's only comprehensive women's museum. For additional information, including hours, admission and location, please visit www.thewomensmuseum.org.

The National Museum of American History traces American heritage through exhibitions of social, cultural, scientific and technological history. Collections are displayed in exhibitions that interpret the American experience from Colonial times to the present. For more information, visit the museum's Web site at http://americanhistory.si.edu .

SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than 50 years. SITES connects Americans to their shared cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science and history, which are shown wherever people live, work and play, including museums, libraries, science centers, historical societies, community centers, botanical gardens, schools and shopping malls.

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