Former first lady Laura Bush brought the “First Ladies: Style of Influence” exhibit to the Bush Center on SMU’s campus. Bush attended the convocation for the exhibit on Thursday, March 1.
The exhibit features historic items from multiple first ladies, such as the snuffbox from Dolley Madison, a dress Michelle Obama wore for a “Let’s Move” campaign, and Grace Coolidge’s clutch from the 1920’s. Short biographies of 21 first ladies lined the walls of the exhibit, including Nancy Reagan, Abigail Adams, Hillary Clinton, Martha Washington, and more.
A major theme of the event was the role of first ladies in their time in the White House.
“Historically, the role of a first lady has been associated with that of a hostess,” an interview reel made for the event said.
Another crucial role for first ladies is that of a political partner or teammate to the president. Much of the role of a first lady is behind the scenes, but no less important.
“A first lady should be able to support her husband and to take on some project, whether it’s reading literacy or mental health,” staff member and high school history teacher Bruce Ralston said. “They are almost like co-presidents.”
Every first lady has taken on a project, like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign and Laura Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” reading program.
Laura Bush said, of the September 2011 attacks taking precedence over her “No Child Left Behind” initiative program, “You go to the White House with good intentions and things you’re going to work on, and I did, but you also have to respond to things that happen.”
Exhibit curator Natalie Gonnella-Platts said that the items displayed in the exhibit provide a larger picture of the role of first ladies.
“Each of the artifacts serves as an entry point to a larger story about how each of these women uniquely approached the role and made a difference in the history of our country and the wider world,” Gonnella-Platts said.
Gonnella-Platts said interviews and other data collection for a research study for the exhibit were conducted over a two-year period, beginning in 2015 and released in a book titled “A Role Without a Rulebook,” which was released in March 2017.
The exhibit attracted 2,180 people during opening weekend and is projected to attract 100,000 people between March 1 and October 1, when the exhibit closes.