Copyright 1998 The Washington Post
The Washington Post
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January 26, 1998, Monday, Final Edition
SECTION: STYLE; Pg. C01
LENGTH: 1526 words
HEADLINE: New Library Will Chronicle First Ladies; Visitors to Be Welcomed At Ohio Site as Well as Online
BYLINE: Donnie Radcliffe, Special to The Washington Post
"I hope some day," Harry Truman wrote in 1960, "someone
will take time to evaluate the true role of the wife of a president, and
to assess the
many burdens she has to bear and the contributions she makes."
Nearly 40 years later, that prospect is about to become
reality. Tomorrow at the Renwick Gallery, the creation of the National
Library, including a comprehensive online annotated bibliography, will be announced. The library's books, documents and audiotapes will be
located in Canton, Ohio, in the childhood home of Ida Saxton McKinley, the 20th first lady. But the virtual library will be available to anyone with
a computer and a modem.
The bibliography will not shy away from controversial aspects
of the 43 first ladies' lives, said author and historian Carl Sferrazza
compiled it. On the Florence Harding page, for instance, a researcher will be able to reference a book by Warren Harding's alleged mistress, Nan
Britton, who claimed that she bore his daughter. She wrote in detail about assignations with the president, which she said took place in an
anteroom off the Oval Office.
Similarly, stories about Hillary Rodham Clinton's role
in dealing with the current presidential imbroglio will be listed, but
not until 1999, Anthony
cautioned. The bibliography, he said, will be updated each January. It will be launched next month, by Mrs. Clinton, who is scheduled to access
the new database for the first time from her White House computer.
The new library is "just kind of asking for equal time,
trying to ensure there is equal focus and emphasis given and an equal history,"
Frances Hughes Glendening, Maryland's first lady and the library's vice chairwoman. "That's the whole point: There is a significant gap in our
historical perspective because we do not chronicle the achievements, accomplishments and contributions of women."
From the beginning, first ladies have been controversial.
"Almost regardless of what an individual chose to do, she
would be criticized," Hillary Clinton said in a recent interview. "There
wasn't any safe
harbor in the public arena or any particular choice that would be universally accepted."
Two centuries ago, in a letter delivered to her niece,
the first first lady, Martha Washington, lamented that her role was "more
like a state
prisoner than anything else." Eleanor Roosevelt, 150 years later, traveled the country on behalf of her ailing husband and was criticized for it.
But in the last half century, Americans have accepted a limited public role for presidents' wives.
"First ladies are aware that they have this great platform
that they'll never have again," Nancy Reagan said in a phone interview
"It goes by very, very quickly. If you don't use it, you're a fool," said Mrs. Reagan, who launched the memorable "Just Say No" program against
The library, said Rosalynn Carter from Atlanta, "will be
a great resource for news reporters, historians, teachers, students and
They're really the ones who influence opinion."
In addition to providing a repository for the papers of
those first ladies whose husbands don't have presidential libraries, Mrs.
Clinton said, the
new library will demonstrate that "there isn't any cookie-cutter formula for being a first lady."
Since the authors of the Constitution neglected to provide
a job description for the first lady, "what you get," said Edith Mayo,
executive adviser, "is women using everyday life and everyday materials to structure a really important role, created out of a vacuum. It's quite
a stunning achievement."
Mayo was the curator who revamped the popular exhibit on
first ladies at the National Museum of American History in 1992, focusing
the developing political role, public image and contributions of first ladies than on their gowns. Inside the museum, initial reaction to the change
was "cautious," she said.
"I think the perception of men who were the naysayers was
that women visitors were only interested in gowns. A variation on that
could first ladies ever have done that could possibly be interesting that you could put into an exhibition?" Mayo said. "When they found there
was interesting material, that died away. And then the question was: Would the public like it?"
The exhibit remains the most popular in the museum.
Until recently, "even women's historians were not particularly
interested in first ladies' history," Mayo said. "The perception was that
women had not achieved on their own, but through marriage to a man who ultimately became president."
Yet today, as Mrs. Carter said, the public has "a fascination"
with the position. "A natural curiosity," said Mrs. Reagan. All six living
are honorary chairwomen of the library.
It took another political wife to organize the grass-roots
effort that has established the library. Mary Rodusky Regula, a former
and the wife of Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), said she had long been frustrated by how little people seem to know about the presidents' wives. "It
wasn't until the 1970s," she said, "that we decided women had any part in this nation's history."
Regula began a fund-raising campaign after she was unable
to find good reference material about Mary Todd Lincoln for a speech she
deliver. When a search of the Library of Congress and presidential sites around the country turned up nothing, she set out to fill the void.
Her husband, then ranking minority member on the Interior
subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, had been instrumental
negotiating a deal under which a local Ohio nonprofit organization was permitted to occupy the old McKinley home in return for its upkeep and
interior renovation. That arrangement called for setting aside several public rooms, and this is the space the new library will occupy. Its
computerized database will be located two doors away in a seven-story building and will be maintained by Stark State College of Technology. All
funds were raised privately.
The Victorian house was where Ida Saxton McKinley grew
up and became engaged to future president William McKinley. It served as
away from Washington during his 14 years in Congress, and after McKinley was assassinated, she lived there until her death in 1907.
At various times a tavern, an inn and a brothel, the house
was restored in the 1970s by Saxton descendants. In 1991, because it was
remaining home of President McKinley, the National Park Service bought the house for $ 1.1 million and turned occupancy over to the Stark
Foundation on the condition that no additional federal funds be spent on it.
At first, Mary Regula envisioned leaving the rooms as they
were. But as she and her 13-member site committee got deeper into the project,
expectations grew. They planned to duplicate the Victorian decor of McKinley's era as closely as possible. This entailed, for example, 18
different wallpaper patterns in the parlor alone.
The library's goals expanded, as well, to include recognition
of contemporary "first women" of achievement (the first annual First Women
Dinner will be held in Washington in early May) and women's history in general.
That field of study has grown increasingly popular on U.S.
campuses and now focuses on "the intersection of the public and private
women," Mayo said. "The first ladies are the major exemplars of when your private life becomes public."
Kent State University President Carol Cartwright, a member
of the advisory board, said the library will be relevant because the changing
presidents' wives, "from social hostess to social activist and from silent partner to full partner," mirrors the changing roles of all American
Still, "people shouldn't mistake this as a feminist issue,"
said Ray Ivey, vice president of the Consolidated Natural Gas Foundation
and one of five
men on the library's 17-member board of directors. "It's not an advocacy organization. The fact that John Adams's wife beat him up constantly
because he wasn't putting the right to vote for women into the Constitution they were writing is immaterial."
In discussing the project, the current and former first
ladies kept coming back to the trials they faced trying to take on social
issues during their
time in the White House.
"It was really hard for me to convey to the American people
what I was trying to do on mental health," Mrs. Carter said. "After the
meetings no reporters would come. One told me it wasn't a sexy issue."
"I know that nobody [in the White House] was really very
happy about my taking on the drug program," Mrs. Reagan said. "Everybody
should be something else. They would have preferred that I take on something less controversial."
Mrs. Clinton, who knows something about controversy, said
that although the library will include the journals of several first ladies,
won't find hers there. She isn't keeping one.
"I just think," she said, "it would not be a wise thing
for me to do."