From the first days on a campaign trail to the final days living in the White House, the First Ladies of the United States have attracted attention in numerous ways. Both historic and modern First Ladies have harnessed the power of fashion to build identity and inform Americans. In conjunction with our exhibition “Making Their Mark,” we present a distinguished panel to discuss and examine the fashions of America’s First Ladies through conversation and photos. Moderated by Tim Gunn, star of Project Runway, panelists include Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology; Lisa Kathleen Graddy, Deputy Chair and Chief Curator of Political History and the First Ladies Collection, Smithsonian National Museum of American History; and Tracy Reese, a fashion designer who has designed for First Lady Michelle Obama. Presented in partnership with the White House Historical Association.
Tuesday, September 30, at 7 p.m. in the William G. McGowan Theater
The discussion will be streamed live on YouTube.
“Photograph of Betty Ford, Frankie Welch, the designer of the gown being donated, and S. Dillon Ripley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, with the gown Betty Ford is donating in the First Ladies Hall at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of History and Technology on 6/24/1976."
This sequined chiffon gown embroidered in a chrysanthemum pattern was her State Dinner Dress in 1975.
Courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Library. National Archives Identifier: 7347186
Fascinated by First Ladies’ Fashion? Don’t miss the First Ladies’ Fashions panel moderated by Tim Gunn, star of Project Runway on Wednesday September 30th at the National Archives!
The First Lady’s First Press Conference
A week after the President gave his first press conference Betty Ford held one of her own. She fielded questions in the State Dining Room for 25 minutes on September 4, 1974.
Although she had interacted informally with the press since entering the White House, Mrs. Ford took a step many former First Ladies had not by making herself available to the media in an official press conference. Around 150 reporters and photographers attended the session.
During the press conference Mrs. Ford answered questions about her family’s transition to the White House, the impact of the economy on her family’s budget, and the possibility of President Ford running in the 1976 election. She spoke openly on several topics that would come up throughout the administration, including her support of the Equal Rights Amendment and women’s engagement in civic affairs. “I think that by becoming very active in politics, which I deeply encourage, that they will play a great role in the future of our country,” she said.
Reporters asked her about her role as First Lady as well. Mrs. Ford expressed her interest in supporting the arts, particularly in education, and working with underprivileged and retarded children. She also responded to a question regarding the kind of “footprint” she wanted to make during her time in the White House: “I would like to be remembered in a very kind way; also as a constructive wife of a President. I do not expect to come anywhere near living up to those First Ladies who have gone before me. They have all done a great job, and I admire them a great deal and it is only my ambition to come close to them.”
Here President and Mrs. Ford ride in the Presidential limousine during a trip to Chicago on August 19, 1974.
President Ford logged over 270,000 miles of travel while in office, and Mrs. Ford regularly accompanied him on trips. They attended public events together and made state visits to several foreign countries. “I had fun, I was privileged to travel in style and to see many wonders,” she reflected on their Presidential trips in her memoirs, “and these will stay in my memory.”-from the Ford Library
Jacqueline Kennedy was born on this day in 1929, in Southhampton, New York. She was named Jacqueline Lee Bouvier. Her father, John, was a stockbroker on Wall Street whose family had come from France in the early 1800s. Her mother, Janet, had ancestors from Ireland and England.
As a child, Jackie loved to read. Before she started school, she had read all the children’s books on her bookshelves. Her heroes were Mowgli from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Robin Hood, Little Lord Fauntleroy’s grandfather, Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind, and the poet Byron.
Photo: Jacqueline Bouvier, 1935. Photograph by David Berne in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
Morley Safer’s interviewed Betty Ford for the CBS news program “60 Minutes.” They taped the interview in the White House Solarium on July 21, 1975.
The “60 Minutes” segment marked Mrs. Ford’s first extensive, exclusive TV interview. Safer questioned her on a number of topics including her experiences as a politician’s wife, openness about her breast cancer, and support for women’s rights, particularly the Equal Rights Amendment.
Safer noted that unlike many political wives, for Betty Ford “the higher your husband’s gotten, the more really controversial things have been said.” This interview would be no exception. She called the Supreme Court’s ruling to legalize abortion “a great, great decision,” and discussed premarital sex and the possibility of her children using drugs.
After the segment aired on August 10 the White House received a deluge of negative comments regarding Mrs. Ford’s position on these issues. Public mail ran 2 to 1 against Mrs. Ford, although more positive comments came in over time. In the long run her approval rating increased after the controversy died down.
According to Sheila Weidenfeld, Mrs. Ford’s press secretary, the First Lady later sent Safer an autographed picture inscribed, “If there are any questions you forgot to ask – I’m grateful.”
-from the Ford Library
Helen Keller was born on this day, June 27, 1880.
Helen Keller wrote letters to eight U.S. Presidents, from Theodore Roosevelt through Lyndon B. Johnson, on behalf of her work for the disabilities community. You can find more Presidential records featuring Helen Keller here.
Photo: Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Keller (both far left) and others in Martha’s Vineyard. 8/25/54.
Betty Ford attended the dedication of Bennington College’s new Visual and Performing Arts Center on May 22, 1976. The First Lady had studied dance there as a teenager in the 1930s.
In her remarks Mrs. Ford reflected on her time at Bennington and her appreciation for the arts. “For those of us who studied here, Martha Hill, Martha Graham and others gave us something else. They touched our hearts with fire and infused us with spirit,” she said. “Isn’t that what the arts are about? Nourishment for the soul. The arts, especially for me the dance, draw out our emotions and make us more alive. Very often the arts help me to see life in a new way.”
During the ceremony Mrs. Ford affixed a plaque to the building, officially dedicating the center. She and Martha Hill, who had been one of her dance instructors at Bennington, watched a presentation of pieces choreographed and performed by students from the college’s dance department in the new building’s West Dance Studio.
(White House photograph A9928-14A)
Time Flies When You’re Having Fun
It’s hard to believe, but we’ve made it through all of the state dinners hosted by President and Mrs. Ford. We hoped you’ve enjoyed going behind the scenes at these White House events.
Although we’re saying goodbye to our state dinner focus, don’t worry! We’ll be back soon with even more great items from our collections.
President and Mrs. Ford wave goodbye to Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti as he departs the White House following a state dinner held in his honor on December 6, 1976.
We loved the State Dinner series and we’ll be reblogging those over the next few months. Looking forward to seeing what else our colleagues at fordlibrarymuseum have planned!
Eleanor Roosevelt’s First Press Conference - March 6, 1933
On March 6, 1933 Eleanor Roosevelt held the first of her 348 women’s only press conferences. Before this time, First Ladies had little contact with reporters. Eleanor recognized that holding regular conferences could enhance the public role of the First Lady - a role she transformed during her 12 years in the White House.
About 35 women attended Eleanor’s first press conference which was held in the Monroe Room on the second floor of the living quarters in the White House. The press conferences were attended by the major female reporters of the day - including Lorena Hickok, Ruby Black, Bess Furman, May Craig, Emma Bugbee and Martha Stayer.
Eleanor used these press conferences as a way to not only announce her schedule of activities but also as a platform to publicize the work of women leaders, answer her critics, and entertain questions on a variety of subjects. Topics covered everything from domestic issues like social programs, race, youth activism, etc. to international politics and the role of women in war and peace.
Today marks the 90th anniversary of the first time the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was introduced in Congress in 1923. Both Gerald and Betty Ford were strong supporters of this constitutional amendment that stated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
When the ERA was again introduced in the early 1970s, Congressman Ford voted in favor of it. Just over 30 states had ratified the amendment by the time he entered the White House. As President, Ford urged “those States who have not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment to give serious consideration to its ratification and the upholding of our Nation’s heritage.” He hoped that the requisite goal of ratification by 38 states would be reached in the Bicentennial year of 1976.
First Lady Betty Ford staunchly and vocally supported the ERA. “It is my personal opinion that ratification of the ERA is the single most important step that our nation can take to extend equal opportunity to all Americans,” she said.
Here is one of her statements explaining why she was firmly in favor of this amendment.
Photo: First Lady Betty Ford Expressing her support for the Equal Rights Amendment in Hollywood, Florida. 2/25/75.