January 12, 2017


A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies. By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Anna DiVito. Harper. $16.99.

Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation. By Cokie Roberts. Illustrated by Diane Goode. Harper. $17.99.

     The notion that there is more to history than traditional rulers-and-battles accounts include is nothing new; history itself has become fragmented into writings that attempt to “right wrongs” (by strictly contemporary standards) by discussing “under-represented” ethnic, racial or religious groups and alleging that “true” history is correctly understood only when seen from those groups’ perspective instead of – or in addition to – the more commonly known one. In reality, the vast majority of what we think of as “history” is resolutely mundane: people simply live within the strictures of their time and do their best to get through each day, each week, each month, each year. A large amount of what we make a big deal about nowadays is neither more nor less than the vicissitudes of everyday life in a past that we can never fully understand, because we never experienced it and never can. It is worth remembering, just to cite one small example, that Thomas Jefferson, a polymath and one of the greatest presidents of the United States, did not consider the presidency important enough to be mentioned on his tombstone. It states – and these were Jefferson’s explicit instructions, “not a word more” – that he was “author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.” The fact that most people nowadays deem the omission of the presidency unaccountable is a failing of modern thinking, not a problem with Jefferson’s beliefs or values.

     That said, there is value to understanding multiple perspectives on lives lived and ended long ago, and well-written books that explore such lives can give young readers (and, for that matter, adults) some insight into the past that traditional histories do not. Generally, the key to the books’ value is whether or not they are cause-driven – the ones determined to “redress” some sort of imagined (or even actual) “imbalance” in standard histories tend to lecture and hector, while the more matter-of-fact ones often provide genuine insight. Kathleen Krull generally does a fine job with books of this type, and A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies is no exception. Jefferson, as it happens, is one of the few presidents who did not have a “first lady” in the form of a wife: his beloved Martha had died nearly 20 years before Jefferson assumed the presidency. The wives of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and Chester A. Arthur also died before those men became president; and James Buchanan never married. A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies briefly mentions how those presidents handled the expected hostess duties and other functions that First Ladies traditionally assumed – but of course it spends most of its time on presidential wives and the things they did. In doing so, Krull offers some genuine insight. For example, Edith Wilson’s commanding role in government after Woodrow Wilson had a severe stroke is well enough known to appear in most histories – but the connection of what she did with the 25th Amendment, which states that the vice president takes over when the president is incapacitated, is not always explained clearly. And the fact that Edith Wilson supported John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, and rode in the parade during his inauguration, is mentioned even less frequently. Furthermore, the fact that there was (informal) precedent for what Edith Wilson did is rarely mentioned – but Krull notes that Julia Grant, the devoted wife of Ulysses S. Grant (who was equally devoted to her), “was an active adviser in private” and was the first First Lady to issue a press release and regularly inform the media (that is, the newspapers) of the activities of the First Family. Krull also humanizes each First Lady – again using Julia Grant as an example, Krull says she had “one eye that moved uncontrollably” and therefore “walked awkwardly if she didn’t have someone guiding her,” but Ulysses talked her out of having corrective surgery because he loved her just as she was. Small, heartwarming bits of information like that, although scarcely the main point of A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies, make the book all the better. For instance, Bess Truman, when asked which earlier First Lady she most identified with, chose Elizabeth Monroe – who had followed super-popular Dolley Madison just as Bess followed the very dynamic Eleanor Roosevelt. One thing that becomes clear from A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies is that the majority of these women were very much of their time – subservient when that was the expectation, then increasingly assertive as women gained additional legal rights. Some, however, helped lead women into more-modern times: for example, Caroline Harrison was the first to deliver a speech in public that she had written, and Ida McKinley was the first First Lady to come out in public as supporting women’s right to vote. A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies includes illustrations by Anna DiVito that are nothing particularly special but that do help give a sense of what the First Ladies looked like. They do a good job in their supporting role – much as most First Ladies did in theirs.

     Cokie Roberts’ Ladies of Liberty is more of an agenda-driven book: its subtitle, The Women Who Shaped Our Nation, is more an assertion than a fact. There are two First Ladies here – James Monroe’s wife, Elizabeth, and John Quincy Adams’ spouse, Louisa Catherine. There is also Martha Jefferson Randolph, who did the duties of First Lady for her father, Thomas Jefferson. But most of the book is about women who contributed in other ways. Some are now quite well-known, such as Sacagawea, famed for her work with the Lewis and Clark expedition. Others are known in limited circles but not generally, such as Isabella Graham, founder of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children and originator of Sunday school. Abetted by atmospheric, stylish Diane Goode illustrations – which, unlike those in Krull’s book, are a significant element of the stories – Roberts gives two-page biographies of 10 women and discusses many more in brief on pages labeled “Women Through the Years” (the years being 1727 to 1825), “Women Educators and Reformers,” and “Women Writers.” There are some genuine surprises here, such as the inclusion of Louise D’Avezac Livingston, an early environmental activist who was the wife of Edward Livingston, the U.S. ambassador to France under President Andrew Jackson; and Rebecca Gratz, founder of the first Jewish orphanage in the United States and possibly the source of the character Rebecca in the novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, whom she had met while in England. The picking and choosing of the women here seems designed to cover as many contemporary focuses as possible, from environmentalism and Judaism to Native Americans, African Americans, Catholics, and so forth. The inclusiveness is not especially intrusive, but it does give a somewhat misleading view of the roles played by women in the American colonies and early United States. Still, Ladies of Liberty is a brief and interesting foray into the lives, adventures and concerns of a few women who, if they did not quite shape the new nation, certainly contributed in important ways to some aspects of the way it developed.

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