Date Thesis Awarded


Document Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)


American Studies


Timothy L. Barnard

Committee Members

Chandos Michael Brown

Susan Kern

Charles McGovern


The United States Constitution does not outline the duties of the first lady, in sharp contrast to the president, for whom it carefully delineates roles, rules, and limitations. Instead, it has been up to a combination of individual women, institutions like the Smithsonian, popular culture, and political discourses to define (and constantly redefine) the position. The term "First Lady" itself is problematic because there is, in fact, no specific or fixed definition. Throughout American history, the role of the first lady has manifested itself based on the historical time period and the prerogative of the individual first lady. Over the course of the twentieth century, as women gained increased independence and opportunities to act in the public sphere, the cultural and political constructions of the first lady became more restrictively defined to the domestic roles of wife and mother. Jacqueline Kennedy, Betty Ford, and Hillary Clinton function as a revealing trio of late twentieth century first ladies who engaged in what Betty Ford identified as "the power of the position" in ways that simultaneously circumscribed their options as powerful public women while also leaving room for each to pursue personal agendas, initiatives, and agencies. Ultimately all three divulge the challenges, limits, and possibilities in – to paraphrase the subtitle of Hillary Clinton's final publication as a first lady, An Invitation to the White House – making one's female self "at home with the history of the first ladyship."

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


Thesis is part of Honors ETD pilot project, 2008-2013. Migrated from Dspace in 2016.