A Charming View of First Ladies
After the fifties a young woman went to Charm School, but before that it was called Finishing School. It was the sure way of having someone prepare for the outside world.
Although I have heard many stories about those young men who attended prep school, sent away on Daddies Checking Account, to live over seas, study with the best, and many warned to improve their behavior by the Dean of Admissions because their Daddy would be upset if they were sent home. Most women were preparing to catch a great husband and this was their duty to their family.
First, let me mention the name, “Finishing School.” This was a typical Charm School but renamed in the sixties. I often wondered as a child what a young woman needed to finish in finishing school? During that time, from the forties to the fifties, women were not attending college, but Finishing School, if their parents could afford it, to prepare them for the big wide world. Most of those women in the thirties, forties, and fifties would get as far as the desk in front of their bosses office – opening mail, typing letters, fetching coffee, but they wore expensive clothing, belted waists measuring about eighteen inches, high spiked heels, and bright red lipstick. They walked about the office with confidence in themselves although their jobs were far from their dreams. One thing never changed, even today, is envy of other women. This seemed to be a natural way for woman to act toward one another – especially if you stepped a little further down the golden path.
You could begin Charm School when you entered puberty; shaping your eyebrows, outlining your lips, using astringent to close pores, and once you passed this part and still cared about your future you learned how to walk, talk, and choose the perfect wardrobe to fit your needs.
I believe the first day of Charm School, if you left your mark, those invisible marks, where the teacher thought you could do something with your life, you were set. You had to be committed, do as you are told – show up for fittings, wear skin colored under garments, and smile. Passing this test may mean you were on your way to the big city, or at least have the opportunity to meet those who could help you find the path you were focusing on for your future. Charm School changed into a professional opportunity to enter the world of fashion, beauty pageants, modeling at fancy luncheons, trips, shows, and so forth. This would happen to those who had a dream, and determined to make their dream come true.
Now that you get the idea, enter the sixties, women who came from influential families went to college, learned as any of the young men, yet not taken as seriously. They would laugh at the Charm School Girls, and drift off into their own worlds, but leave a statement behind. Even those women from normal middle class families did the same.
Before the breakout of the sixties women had to have charm, be able to handle the public, greet strangers with a smile to get a pay raise. Women took a long hard look at the process of being a woman and knew things had to change.
Thinking back in history at those who climbed the social ladder beyond the front desk – who never needed finishing school – were those with natural talent, and love for what they were doing. I believe not one of those women typing for a living thought those pennies were worth their weight in copper. They probably still sit back and wonder why they never followed their dreams, or left a mark during their lifetime.
Today is different, even different from the sixties, if you worked hard in school, or outside of school, proved yourself to others you had talent you may have a chance at your dreams. The women from finishing schools had no long lines to stand in to pray they are chosen for a Reality Show, but they knew the right people to bring them into the back lot or Warner Brothers or MGM. Even the actors were found in some diner – you never hear those stories today. Back when Hollywood was young the amount of men or women interested in a career was less, and positions few. Today regardless of your achievements, a woman is not turned away because of their gender. I have to say, it is still the old school when it comes to politics, women in politics have a difficult time with the old Prep. School Boys. Today as a candidate, you have to be you, finishing school is out, and being a robot in expensive clothing shows no promise. If you have talent, show it.
Some things haven’t changed – the models are perfectly dressed, slender, beautiful, and most of them look alike. Technology leads the way. You still have to be tall, slim to be considered a model, and those who are shorter who like this field of entertainment tend to lean toward the stage if they have talent, a strong voice, imagination and love the audience. It’s a long hard road but if you are lucky you may start as an extra, in one of those long lines.
Since we are talking women and life style it is a perfect time to bring up the First Ladies, and see where they fit into the picture.
Let us take a quick look into the past – First Lady “Jackie Kennedy,” was a model of a finishing school graduate. She knew about the short white gloves, how to master her voice, walk with a specific bounce, and smile not only with her lips but with her eyes. She had the support of a rich family, and connections – took a newspaper job in D.C. as the wandering photographer, reporting on people in the streets. Although she always had her eyes set on those with influence. Jackie also had natural beauty, her influential upbringing, a demanding mother, but knew enough to rope in a young Congressman who came from money. Instead of a stock broker she fell for a political minded family and knew her life would be heading in the right direction, at least she had a long time dream. Even after the death of JFK she would marry the richest man in the world. What did she do for the people? She redecorated the White House, and brought the arts into view. This, was her job she believed, although today I think she would focus on more then furnishings and a fancy program about the rooms in the White House.
Then we had Lady Bird – her name alone gave you the right to say she probably ran a finishing school, and she came from the south where women were to be kindly and gentle to everyone around them, who knew what went on behind closed doors. She brought up her daughter’s to be exactly like her, proper in every respect – knowing she too would keep the families in good standing.
Patricia Nixon started taking a step away from the finishing school line of women, and took a back seat rather quietly, as if she were in some classroom and did not want anything to do with the subject matter. She was not involved as the others with the people, she kept a home the best she could with all the turmoil that hit the nation during those first Nixon years. She kept at her husband’s side come hell or high water, and left with her chin held high. She remained refrained from politics and the political scene, making her grand appearances coming down the stairs of the White House, linked with President Nixon, probably pinching his arm, for moral support.
The times began to change as we move on to First Lady Betty Ford. She appeared in all due respect to be a wonderful first lady, once more quiet until she experience breast cancer when she came out for all the women in the world with this disease. On the outside – she appeared as strong willed as Jackie “O, she was weak, and was left alone after a short term in the White House, and began abusing drugs and alcohol. Then she would leave a mark, one of the first ladies of our country admitted she was not perfect. Finally, she agreed and admitted into a rehabilitation center, now known as the Betty Ford Clinic. If Mrs. Ford took lessons, her esteem was pulled down when she discovered cancer, undergoing a mastectomy was devastating and she turned to substances, either legal or not, for help – she was alone, but she left her mark.
Nancy Regan was the boss of the White House second floor. She controlled how something was said, achieved and even told off a reporter while she was First Lady. Her attitude was more like an actress instead of the Charming First Lady – she was a protector – although the country had no idea near the end of her husband’s term in office, he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. She was there, at his side like they were both playing roles in a motion picture, she was the staring lady – the support behind the man. President Reagan, was loved by many, but Mrs. Reagan became the witch in the White House. The outlook changed when the truth came out and people believed she was at his side constantly to protect him as he reached the end of his time in office. The First Lady was now a hero, one who took care of her husband, and sometimes his thoughts, she protected him from harm. I am sure in her early years, preparing to become an actress, she learned the tricks of the trade.
The generations took a wild turn as we entered the sixties and the First Ladies would be those who were looking for the same power as their husbands, to represent a portion of the country, to help America. First Ladies no longer wore short white gloves, stood silent by their husband, but began to speak out for what they believed in, do something besides redecorate the White House – and became involved supporting the people – it took our country time to accept this. They had a purpose for living in the White House.
First Lady Hillary Clinton would be the first, (besides Eleanor Roosevelt) to tackle something so difficult, as she tried to make a country understand if this was not completed now – it would only get worse, and her belief regarding health care was right. This is a woman who is strong, determined, yet had the patients of a saint. She protected her daughter, her husband, and worked with important organizations around the world, and here in America. She would bring the people to Washington D.C. and protest the block on Health Care For All. She would stand tall in her red dress and speak on the south lawn, and everyone in the audience would know, understand, and had followed her through her battle with Congress. Looking back, it was a long hard fight from before her husband was even sworn into office by the other side of the aisle. That side was more concerned about taking down a President then building up our Nation. President Clinton and Hillary Clinton have been the most popular couple in the White House, according to records. The battle continued for eight years and both left the White House and our Country in excellent financial condition. First Lady Hillary Clinton, left her mark, and continues to do so.
When Laura Bush took office you could tell she chased the attention from herself to her husband, yet he was President, but from a long line of politicians back to the Victorian era – and the Bush Women had to go by old fashion rules, and stand strong behind their man. She looked, acted, and was a Librarian. She never said a word, but smiled with her mouth closed. She never came out strong enough for education or reading – where her strengths were – but she never could take one step in front of her husband, most of the time she was walking alone to the helicopter while President Bush ignored her. She seemed pleasant to the voters, quiet and understanding. They did try to keep their twin daughters out of the press as much as possible but one was like George, and the other like Jeb. She would leave gently from the White House, and never be heard from again.
Our present First Lady is a mixture of these women of the sixties, but too young to go through what those women did, fighting for women rights, pay, etc., she sometimes comes across like she is the leading lady, not of the government but a television show. She tries hard to be perfect, going back to the finishing school, charm school era. She dresses perfect, stands tall, but still has her own thoughts on issues concerning her fight for childhood obesity. I feel her approach on the subject is too direct, since most of the time children learn at home, good nutrition, and she has not taken into concern those children with Illness which cannot help being over weight. Her point is taken well, we want healthy children, healthy adults, and less cost in the long run for health care, it all fits perfectly in a plan. What bothers me about the present First Lady is the fact I mentioned above, some children are afflicted with diseases, and all the hype only makes it more difficult for them. If she concentrated on both issues, not belittling the child who is overweight by no fault of canned soda or fries, giving them the complex of less than good, at a young age, to me was incorrect. If our First Lady went about the situation in a different manner, she could have taken a larger role and perhaps made more of an impact. I believe she knew all about what she could do for the country, prepared to take on her cause, but did not go deep enough.
Where does this story lead us? Personalities of the First Ladies, and their own personal journey – or perhaps past news and what we may expect in the future.
If Obama keeps his seat as President, I would like to see his wife, our First Lady, expand on her agenda regarding education in the schools. I would like her to stop singling out certain children since they have no control and peers have no regards – they see what they see – and the more it is harped on the more they will be bullied – a big topic for the schools and children today. Her voice could span further, into other topics – far too many young school age children commit suicide, are tortured by words from their peers. Each child should learn to respect others no matter their age or influence, no matter their afflictions or disabilities. There is a great deal more our First Lady can do in the school system. Look at the teachers being cut because of this economy and lack of funds from the government. Why not take from the public sector, those who are leading members of the community who can teach special classes on writing – I have volunteered in both public and private schools. The children would consider a new face a special day with special people.
If Mrs. Romney becomes the First Lady I feel someone who understands Long Term Care, its’ needs, what the government believes, health care needed, drugs for illnesses like her own, Multiple Sclerosis, cost some people who run their own business, for special shots, 9,000 dollars every three months. Mrs. Romney can afford these shots since she has excellent health care, and will be covered for the rest of her life. If she becomes First Lady she should lay her heart on the line, think about the millions of people in need of real care, expert care, and the use of drugs that our government has approved through research, out of the pockets of its’ citizens, to be used by its’ citizens. This is a needed effort, no matter party backing or their feelings politically.
The First Lady of the United States should show some concern and interest, which will better the lives of young or old, and make life easier. Yes, being a first lady means more than a name – it gives them power to help others.
Actually, Finishing Schools” are very old – as in the early 19th century. Mary Lincoln went to one, and so did Julia Grant and a whole bunch of early First Ladies. THey went around age 13 or 14 through 16 or 17 to be “finished”, as in “polished.” They were the daughters of well to do parents who wanted their little girls to be trained to be proper wives of men of distinction.
Most of the finishing schools were light on academics (other than literature and poetry) and much heavier on the graceful stuff.
Feather Schwartz Foster
Thank you Feather for the note – yes I agree completely with your statement. It certainly was a different age. I recall where I live, those same women in the history books, with “Saratoga Trunks.” I guess, those parasols really were part of their training. Thanks for reading. Sincerely, Nancy