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First Ladies can charm even a devoted feminist

Jane Eisner is a former Inquirer editor and columnist and vice president for national programs and initiatives at the National Constitution Center

Jane Eisner

is a former Inquirer editor and columnist and vice president for national programs and initiatives at the National Constitution Center

With classic historic amnesia, we look at the current crop of First Ladies-to-be - or rather, First Spouses-to-be - and focus on the firsts.

Come 2009, we may have the first African American, the first Mormon, or the first Man to be married to a president, as if this were the only time a First Lady shattered the mold when obtaining the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But first spouses - up to now, first ladies - have always been remarkable people in their own right, as well as important role models in the life of the nation.

I ought to know. I am surrounded by First Ladies. It's true at work, where the clothing, treasured artifacts and iconic symbols of First Ladies from Martha Washington to Laura Bush are on temporary display at the National Constitution Center. And it's true at home, where a collection of First Ladies dolls that my late mother painstakingly gathered over the years sits cheerfully in two large cabinets on the second floor of my house, offering dozens of continuous smiles to anyone walking up and down the stairs.

I admit: This is a little weird.

I am taken in by these women.

By day, I peer at Abigail Adams' lacy slipper and marvel at her tiny foot. I fuss over Dolley Madison's fabulous ball gown, in her signature peaches-and-cream, and marvel at her tiny waist. I stare at the fancy silver tea service Mary Todd Lincoln stubbornly used even as the nation tore itself apart in civil war and wonder whether she, or any of these women, could possibly have been prepared for the life she ended up leading.

Then I go home, and the frozen smiles of the Ladies watch over my household, far better dressed in their inaugural gowns than the rest of us, and I realize that these women have charmed even a devoted feminist like me.

Their power and purpose cannot be underestimated. It's not just that you can trace history through the rise and fall of their hemlines.

What captivates me is the way the clever and courageous ones shaped the national character; broke down barriers; absorbed our grief, and fears, and hopes; while the unlucky ones became magnets for all the nastiness and suspicion this great nation can bestow.

First Ladies have been making history from the beginning. Martha Washington and Abigail Adams struggled to create roles for themselves, having literally no role models anywhere. They could and would not act like queens. In the new nation's infancy, they charted different paths: Washington, the hostess; Adams, the political confidante.

Some of these women turned history. What if Dolley Madison hadn't stayed in Washington when the British burned the capital during the War of 1812? What if Edith Wilson hadn't virtually assumed power from her stroke-stricken husband? When Lyndon Johnson believed he couldn't campaign in the Deep South after signing civil-rights laws, his wife did it for him, knowing that no self-respected Southern gentleman would act rudely to a white woman with a Texan twang. Lady Bird did more than plant flowers; she rewrote the presidential electoral playbook.

Yet as much as they shaped history, these women - proscribed by social norms and, for centuries, U.S. law - have also been remanded to roles we now know were, at times, suffocating. I'm reminded of that every time I pass the Ladies in my home. There are 36 of them (the series of dolls ended with Jacqueline Kennedy), and all are of the same height and build, with the same mannequinlike eyelashes and facial expression. Only their hair and attire are individualized.

"The dolls of feminism," one of my daughters named them, fully aware of the irony. And there is a terrible irony when, in a nation that shunned nobility and pledges allegiance to equality, we place the First Ladies on pedestals and pounce when they get a bit wobbly.

The fact is, no matter who or what kind of person is the First Spouse as of late January 2009, s/he (I love writing that) will have incredibly difficult shoes to fill, whether those are pumps or wing-tips. S/he will have a tradition to follow, a tradition to break, new traditions to set.

By understanding their full stories, their achievements, and failures, and struggles, we do more than merely give the great First Spouses of our history their due. We learn what this nation was at the moment of their service - and we learn what this nation continues to be.

The next First Spouse will, no matter what, reflect to this nation what it is. That's something to keep in mind as the new round of women and a man vie to be the next First.