Constructing the First Lady: Ida McKinley and "Fragile Beauty"

By Christine Cupaiuolo — June 10, 2008

Press speculation is now underway about the type of first lady Michelle Obama might be (comparisons to Barbara Bush? Please).

Writing at Disability Studies, Penny L. Richards, a research scholar at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, acknowledges that she’s usually not interested in discussing the role of the first lady, but she offers an informative analysis of how the physical disabilities of First Lady Ida McKinley helped shaped the press coverage of her husband’s presidency.

Throughout her adulthood, McKinley had epilepsy, intense headaches and phlebitis, which made walking difficult. She was also under great emotional stress: Both her daughters died young in the 1870s; her only brother was murdered. Richards notes that she was probably overmedicated with sedatives.

A discreet press was mostly silent about her “fainting spells,” and “a special campaign biography” of her was released to frame her health in the most gentle terms. Reporters, forbidden to write about her health, instead focused on her gowns. Her husband, President William McKinley, was devoted to Ida’s care: like many partners, he could see the subtle signs of an impending seizure, and knew how to cover for her during required periods of rest. And that devotion became part of his public reputation. Even her absence on the campaign trail was seen as helpful — a gap that reminded voters of the candidate’s tender personal life. Her “frailty” was held up as ladylike and unthreatening, in contrast to Mary Baird, Mrs. William Jennings Bryan, the trained lawyer and reform-minded woman who was rumored to write her husband’s fiery speeches. […]

Privately, some in Washington read Ida McKinley as a manipulative “invalid,” using her perceived delicacy to demand indulgences (think of Zeena in Ethan Frome for a well-known literary version of this archetype). She would appear at state events propped in a velvet chair, with the understanding that she would neither rise from her seat nor shake hands. She wore luxurious lacy gowns and jewels, to enhance her persona as a fragile beauty. (She was the first First Lady to appear in newsreels, so she had a much wider audience for her fashion choices than previous First Ladies). Ida McKinley crocheted a lot — a fine sickbed tradition; while in the White House she reportedly made 3500 pairs of slippers to raise money for charities. There’s some evidence that she was sedated not only for medical necessity but to control her “irrational” personality.

Despite her husband’s devotion, the story of Ida McKinley seems to be a lesson in the early power of image and how the first lady becomes the most acute projection of our gendered desires.

For additional reading, Richards lists sources on McKinley and on the representation of feminine illness.

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In other news …

– “Three islanders from Lesbos told a court Tuesday that gay women insult their home’s identity by calling themselves lesbians,” reports the AP. “The plaintiffs — two women and a man — are seeking to ban a Greek gay rights group from using the word ‘lesbian’ in its name.”

– Following up on the study we mentioned last week on how well journalists cover health news, I wanted to mention that the study’s lead author, journalism professor Gary Schwitzer, has his own blog, in addition to publishing Health News Review.

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