Book Review: First Women
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies, by Kate Andersen Brower, 332 pages
From Jaqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama—two of the most fashionable and iconic First Ladies—First Women offers a deeper insight as to what life is like for these women inside the illustrious walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Unlikely friendships (and rivalries) emerge, but ultimately these ladies are bound by something deeper than political party or personal grievances and connections—they know. They are among only a few people in the world who can identify with the experience of living in the White House and going to sleep each night next to the most powerful man in the world. Brower refers to it as a sisterhood and a sorority, a very elite one at that. As of right now, there are only five women alive who belong to this club—Rosalyn Carter, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama. Elite, indeed.
Instead of going through each lady individually, Brower organizes her stories through sections like "Political Wife," "Motherhood" and "East Wing vs. West Wing." I found this non-chronological approach to feel a little jumpy and disorganized, jumping around through the years had me a little confused. To be fair, maybe this is also due to my own haziness on the order of the Presidents that were in office, mainly before I was born. I'm solid on Kennedy and Reagan through the present, but between Johnson and Carter I have to remind myself who was in office when. Regardless, overall I enjoyed the many little stories peppered throughout, keeping a narrative thread alive. Brower shares how Jackie Kennedy would whisper to her daughter, Caroline, "Let's go kiss the wind," when they went out to play on the South Lawn (p 107). I love details like that, little gems. She also does a good job of providing history and background on these women, so we have some context as to where they come from and what their life was like well before they descended upon the White House.
Ultimately, what Brower managed to do very well is normalize these otherwise larger than life characters, reminding us that these women may have been traveling the globe and planning state dinners with other world leaders, but underneath all that they are what everyone is—human. Pat Nixon, upon her husband losing the 1960 election to Kennedy, says: "Now I'll never be in the White House!" Not only is it sadly ironic, but it reminds us that these ladies may have had a staff of 100 people to cater to them while in the White House, but they were and they are, not without the same complex emotions and motives that every other person has.
I enjoyed this book. It was interesting, amusing, informative and a quick, easy read.