Constitution Daily

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Did a new poll shortchange some historic First Ladies?

February 17, 2014 by Scott Bomboy


A new poll from Siena College and C-SPAN ranks First Ladies in history. But how fair is the survey of historians when it comes to women put at the bottom of the list?

Florence Kling Harding as First Lady
Florence Kling Harding as First Lady

In a press release, Siena and C-SPAN ranked Eleanor Roosevelt at the top of the list, as it has in four previous surveys of historians. Abigail Adams was ranked second, Jacqueline Kennedy was in the third spot, and Dolley Madison was ranked fourth.

Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton are the next two on the list, which contains 39 women

The historians were asked to rank the First Ladies on 10 attributes: background, integrity, value to the country, leadership, being the White House steward, being her own woman, courage, public image, accomplishments, and value to the President.

But what caught our eye was the women ranked at the bottom of the list, and why they were listed there.

The lowest rated First Ladies were Jane Pierce, Eliza Johnson (wife of Andrew Johnson), Letitia Tyler, Florence Harding, and Margaret Taylor. Somehow, Mary Lincoln, who was ranked among the bottom three First Ladies in the four previous survives, was ranked ninth from last (and ahead of Pat Nixon).

As explained by Siena Research Director Don Levy, there was a clear pattern in how more than 200 historians regarded the First Ladies after the top tier, especially when a First Lady is paired with a president as a “power couple.”

“The rest are C ranked at best with failing grades going to the Pierce’s, Harding’s and Eliza and Andrew Johnson,” Levy said in the press release.

So is it accurate to regard a First Lady “as ‘fair at best,” as the survey says in the case? That really is a subjective call for the historians to make, but at least one choice in the bottom five merits discussion.

There is no debate that President Warren Harding’s time in office didn’t go well. Harding was popular and the nation was shocked at his sudden death in San Francisco in 1923.  Scandals such as Teapot Dome, which was unfolding just before his death, tarnished Harding’s reputation, as well as later characterizations that Harding was drinking whiskey and playing cards in the White House during Prohibition.

Florence “Flossie” Harding, however, was a different kind of First Lady for the era, who had more in common with her immediate predecessor, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson.

Florence grew up as the daughter of the richest man in Marion, Ohio, but she soon made her own way in life. Married and divorce at an early age with a child, Florence refused to move back in with her family, and paid her own way. She married Harding when he owned a small newspaper in town, and together they made the business successful, with Mrs. Harding handling much of the financial work.

Harding became a national political figure with his wife acting as an unofficial campaign manager. "I have only one real hobby--my husband,” she said about her role in advancing her husband’s political career.

Florence Harding was also an active First Lady despite severe health problems, with some critics suggesting she had a hand in the president’s speeches.  She also was involved in appointing Cabinet members, and sat in on Cabinet meetings.

After Harding’s death, Florence Harding wanted to protect her husband’s legacy, and burned many of President Harding’s personal papers, as scandals broke about the Harding cabinet, and she died a little more than a year after Harding’s passing.

While it could be fair to demote Florence Harding in the First Lady rankings due to the overall failure of the Harding administration, she also was ranked poorly in some areas where she seemed to excel.

For example, Florence Harding was ranked 35th out of 39 First Ladies in the category of “background,” despite the facts that she came from money, gave it up to be a business woman, and was one of the architects of getting her husband elected as president.

And then there is the category of “courage.” Florence Harding is ranked 33rd out of 39 First Ladies, despite her popularity and her public battle with kidney disease in the White House.

Or the fact that Florence Harding was ranked 36th out of 39 First Ladies in the “value to president” category, when she is widely credited for an active political role in Harding’s campaigns and running the White House.

The other First Ladies who occupy the bottom of the Siena/C-SPAN list weren’t as politically active as Florence Harding because they also had health issues, and in some ways, it almost seems unfair to include them in the rankings.

For example, there is Letitia Tyler, who is ranked 37th.  The wife of John Tyler, Letitia Tyler suffered a stroke a year before Tyler ran for vice president in 1840. After Tyler succeeded William Henry Harrison, Letitia Tyler was confined to a second-floor room and made only one public appearance at the White House before passing away in 1842.

Jane Pierce, who was ranked last among the First Ladies, suffered from a deep depression after the couple’s son, Benny, was killed in front on them in a train accident while Franklin Pierce as president-elect. Jane Pierce participated in few White House activities.

And some of the First Ladies who “received C’s” in the survey were very active in their husbands’ careers and they seemed to have been shortchanged in some categories.

Edith Wilson was only ranked 14th in the survey, despite her considerable role in running the White House after Woodrow Wilson’s stroke.

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