Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Legacy of Florence Harding

Katherine Sibley’s article at HNN looks at the legacy of Florence Harding as First Lady, comparing her to Michelle Obama:
But Mrs. Obama was not the first First Lady to welcome Americans back to the People’s House after a period of little or no access. In 1921, Florence Kling Harding also opened the Mansion and its grounds following several years of closure. Her predecessor, Edith Wilson, had restricted the lawns to a flock of sheep as a wartime “morale boosting” measure (to show the White House was doing its part!). The wool piled up, as did the droppings, and visitors were shooed away. Florence, however, banished the beasts; she planted numerous flowers on the grounds and in the greenhouses, and shook hands with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of visiting crowds on many days of the week. She and her husband were well-loved for this during their scant two and a half years in office; the Hardings became celebrities, regularly appearing in newsreels. They exploited these media opportunities as they hobnobbed with Hollywood personalities like singer, comedian and actor Al Jolson and actress Lillian Gish, just like the Obamas do today, with the likes of George Clooney and Reese Witherspoon.
Sibley talks about Florence’s activism and her role in Harding’s career:
In her activism, Florence turned her highly traditional post in a new direction. As the first future president’s wife to vote for her husband, too, she was thrilled with women’s new political prominence, and did not hold back from engaging with and addressing partisan gatherings of these new voters. Her own creative energies and skillful political strategizing, indeed, had enabled Warren G. Harding to take up the challenge of running for president; she had nurtured and cultivated this genial fellow’s ambitions since his days as a small-town Ohio newspaper publisher.

This author defends her portrayal of Florence Harding as many historians have ranked her as a poor First Lady:
Florence Harding’s reputation was soon colored by a special kind of denigration related to her gender and her age that continues to plague her place in history, where she remains near the bottom of First Ladies in the Siena College Poll. One Harding biographer has impugned her as “sexless, with the brittle quality of an autumn leaf,” and another dismisses her as “a domineering woman.” Francis Russell, the author of 1968’s The Shadow of Blooming Grove—the first book which used the long-closed Harding papers --went so far as to call Florence a “hermaphrodite” in a private letter. Such portrayals have made it difficult to recognize this immensely popular, and effective, first lady. They do confirm, though, that her activism and influence were seen as an unacceptable transgression of gender roles. Apparently, they still are for some, including the pseudonymous “Doctor Watson,” who was quick to write an error-laden review of my book on Amazon, unable to grant Florence her humanity eighty-five years after her death.

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