Professor and author Dr. Jill Abraham Hummer returned to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library on April 26, 2018 as part of its Betty Ford Centennial Celebration to present a lecture on her recently published book First Ladies and American Women: In Politics and at Home. Hummer was also the recipient of the 2005 Gerald R. Ford Foundation Research Travel Grant to support her research on First Ladies.
Hummer is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Wilson College, and focuses her research on women and the presidency, especially American First Ladies. She has written for White House Studies, The Journal of Political Science Education, and PS: Political Science and Politics. She has also been featured in The Christian Science Monitor, Baltimore Sun, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and The Hill.
Hummer’s book First Ladies and American Women examines First Lady roles from Lou Hoover to Michelle Obama through the lens of American politics at the time. She theorizes in her book that “The story of First Ladies and women in America (two separate stories) cannot be understood apart from each other.” In graduate school, Dr. Hummer noticed that because First Ladies do not have an official government role under the Constitution there was not much study of the position which led her to writing the book.
Hummer opened with First Lady Pat Nixon’s quote that “being First Lady is the hardest unpaid job in the world.” Hummer illustrated the point with a picture of Pat Nixon in a formal African tribal dress and offered that “Pat Nixon created the First Lady diplomatic role.” Hummer indicated that the picture of Pat Nixon illustrates the point that Americans care about the First Lady role.
Hummer indicated that the 1918 Women’s Suffrage Amendment changed the landscape of the First Ladies role. As a result, Hummer uses the first part of her book to discuss First Ladies Lou Hoover to Jacqueline Kennedy and how they “respond to women’s increasing role in politics and stabilize families in Great Depression and post World War II”. After discussing Eleanor Roosevelt, Hummer theorized “each first lady is a product of her historical time and place” meaning that they were not ahead or behind their time.
Hummer then detailed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s role in creating what is now known as the “First Lady Project.” She noted that Mrs. Kennedy was not interested in ceremonial functions of the position but reinventing the White House with “save the old and make new again”. She also noted that “First Ladies are free to innovate and do what they want, but … there are limits.”
Hummer provided background historical details on First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson through Rosalyn Carter noting that those First Ladies “moved within the politics of equality and personal issues.” Hummer shared a picture of First Lady Betty Ford standing behind President Gerald R. Ford after signing an Executive Order establishing the National Commission for the Observance of International Women’s Year. Hummer noted that after President Ford gave remarks on the Executive Order, Betty Ford, in an unscripted remark said, “Congratulations Mr. President, I am glad to see you have come a long way!”
Hummer concludes from Betty Ford’s lobbying efforts in support of the Equal Rights Act that First Ladies do have to tread carefully into political issues. Hummer indicated that First Ladies must not neglect the home and family and quoted Betty Ford’s statement that “being a housewife is a much tougher job than going to the office and getting paid for it.” Hummer also credits Mrs. Ford’s use of her own battle with breast cancer to raise awareness of the issue nationally.
Hummer closed the lecture by sharing several stories about First Lady Barbara Bush. She said that Mrs. Bush had a unique ability to transcend politics and connect with her audience. Hummer believes she will be remembered as the First Lady “of family values” and argues that she was “not behind her times, she was exactly right for it as all of our First Ladies have been.”
The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum Director Elaine Didier opened the event introducing the speaker and thanking National Archives and the Ford Presidential Foundation and members of Friends of Ford. Hummer closed the lecture answering questions from the audience.