Ask an Expert: An Interview with Pat Krider on Mary Lincoln and the Role of the First Lady

Pat Krider is the Executive Director of the National First Ladies’ Library. She will join us at Ford’s Theatre following the February 3 performance of The Widow Lincoln to discuss the evolving role of the First Lady. Here’s a preview:

How did you become interested in the history of the First Lady?

In a very round-about way: I created the National First Ladies’ Library’s first website, as a volunteer, along with my boss. Then I was hired to take care of the computer equipment and website in 1999. I got more and more involved with the organization, and my interests switched from technology to First Ladies and women’s history. I became the executive director in January of 2000.

If there were a job description for “First Lady,” what would it say?

This was “borrowed” from Anita McBride:

“Employer seeks the impossible:

Demonstrated perfection as a human being is required Willing to undergo scrutiny as the most famous woman on the planet 24/7 with positions on fashion to peace in the Middle East Super-human, multi-tasking a must Background in planning state dinners, hosting international summits on foreign soil, standing in for weekly national radio addresses, defense of spouse’s positions on over 1,000 issues, and flawless media performances before mobs of cynical reporters preferred

Salary: $0 and must pay all expenses. NOT NEGOTIABLE

Benefits include travel to exotic, war-torn and disease-ridden destinations, intense scrutiny of family, and round-the-clock security by men and women in dark suits and sunglasses living at your home for the rest of your life.”

If a woman becomes president, what will her husband be called? How do you imagine expectations of him would be different from or similar to those of a First Lady?

I think that the U.S. Mint took a proactive role in this situation when they named their companion series to the Presidents coins the First Spouse coins. I think that the “First Spouse” will have the freedom to remain employed if he so wishes and that it will be expected that he offer political advice to his wife. I would think that many of the social expectations would remain the same.

Every president has had a woman fulfilling this role in the White House; even President Buchanan, who was unmarried, had his niece, Harriet Lane, perform the duties of “First Lady.” Are there other examples?

Because there is a social aspect to the Presidency and expectations that entertainment be provided and that protocols be met, it has become customary for the First Lady to take on this role and for unmarried or widowed Presidents to have another woman take on the role – Thomas Jefferson asked Dolley Madison to serve this role, Martin Van Buren asked his daughter-in-law Angelica Van Buren to serve as his hostess, Grover Cleveland asked his sister Rose Cleveland until his marriage to Frances, etc.

Mary Lincoln disliked and was disliked by several members of Lincoln’s cabinet, particularly Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Vice President Andrew Johnson (both of whom are mentioned in the play). Why do you think their relationships were so contentious?

I think that these men were uncomfortable with and intimidated by Mary Lincoln’s political acumen.  They wanted to be the President’s advisors and couldn’t adjust to the fact that a woman – particularly in those Victorian times – could contribute positively in a political conversation.  Mary’s high-strung personality also made it easy for these men to dismiss her ideas.

Each First Lady has left her mark on history and the role, just as each president has left his. How did Mary Lincoln shape the role of the First Lady?

Unfortunately Mary Lincoln left many more “what not to do” impressions than she did “what to do” – really a shame since she did a lot of good work for which she didn’t receive credit.  We are left with a woman who, in her quest to show people that the Lincolns were not back-woods illiterates, was known and judged for her extravagances.  We are left with a woman who, in her effort to project an image of stability that would command respect for the President and the Union, spent lavishly on entertainment and clothing at a time when the country was ensconced in war – making her appear uncaring and unconcerned.  The public didn’t know and didn’t appreciate the countless hours Mary Lincoln spent at hospitals and in efforts to help newly freed slaves.

On the First Ladies’ Library website, you quote Mrs. Lincoln on her struggle to balance the private and public spheres. This seems perhaps like a common dilemma for politicians, celebrities and anyone in the public eye. How does that struggle influence our historical depiction of Mrs. Lincoln?

We only see the public Mrs. Lincoln that the press wanted us to see – the woman who spent lavishly.  We don’t even see the public Mrs. Lincoln engaged in good works. The private Mrs. Lincoln has remained a somewhat unknown entity. I believe that is the problem with our knowledge of all First Ladies, though. We view them through this small four-to-eight-year snippet of their lives when they are in the public eye. What about their life before and after the White House? Would you want your life story told on the basis of that small a period of time – even in the most normal of circumstances?

This interview was edited for length. The full interview will soon be available on The Widow Lincoln Study Guide.

Buy tickets to the February 3 performance, and hear Ms. Krider speak in the post-show discussion.

Alexandria Wood is the Education Programs Coordinator at Ford’s Theatre. Prior to joining the Education Department, she worked as a stage manager, event manager and child wrangler at Ford’s and other D.C.- area theatres. She holds a B.S. in Theatre from Skidmore College.