America’s First Ladies: In Service to Our Nation

Today’s post comes from Elle Benak and Sanjana Barr from the National Archives History Office.

Susan Swain, Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero, Cokie Roberts, Katherine A.S. Sibley, and William Seale, September 16, 2016. (Photo by Jeff Reed, National Archives)

On Friday September 16, 2016, the National Archives hosted the “Legacies of America’s First Ladies” conference in the William G. McGowan theater in Washington, DC.

This was part of an ongoing series first launched in 2011 by American University, who partnered with the National Archives to tell the important story of our nation’s First Ladies.

The conference was led by American University’s professor Anita B. McBride, who had served as Chief of Staff to Laura Bush.

This year’s conference consisted of two panels—the first was a panel moderated by Cokie Roberts with White House Historian William Seale, Professor Katherine A.S. Sibley, and co-CEO of C-SPAN Susan Swain.

The second was a conversation between First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush. Bob Woodruff served as the moderator.

The first panel covered a wide variety of our country’s First Ladies, with the discussion revolving around the same topic: First Ladies involvement in the war effort.

The panelists covered several different First Ladies and shared stories about the women, highlighting what was revolutionary about their dedication to helping their particular war effort. They focused on the women’s many selfless actions to not only support the war but also help the troops and their families during every point of their service and beyond.

Susan Swain, Katherine A.S. Sibley, William Seale, Cokie Roberts, and Anita McBride (at podium). September 16, 2016. (Photo by Jeff Reed, National Archives)

The panelists highlighted First Ladies from all time periods, starting with Martha Washington and how she put herself in danger while living with the troops at Valley Forge during the winter. She mended the men’s pants and made them socks, setting an example for her successors to follow.

They went on to describe how Florence Harding visited and cared for many veterans as well as hosted lavish garden parties for wounded servicemen.

The panelists ended with talking about Pat Nixon as the first First Lady to be in a combat zone and her later hosting a dinner for returning POWs on the White House lawn.

The next panel began with First Lady Michelle Obama and her predecessor Laura Bush discussing their current and future plans to support veterans and military families, and their experiences of being in office during a time of war.

Laura Bush discussed her work with the Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative to address the needs of soldiers transitioning from military service to civilian life.

Michelle Obama talked about the Joining Forces initiative, which she co-founded with Jill Biden, to eliminate barriers in the workforce for veterans and their spouses.

Former First Lady Laura Bush, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Bob Woodruff, September 16, 2016. (Photo by Jeff Reed, National Archives)

The First Ladies also discussed the invisible wounds of war, from mental illnesses such as PTSD to the hidden injuries of head trauma.

Laura Bush made the particular point that she and her husband advocate for saying PTS rather than PTSD. By not labeling it a disorder, they hope to give veterans hope for recovery. She believes that as Vietnam veterans get older and enter VA hospitals, it’s possible their undiagnosed and under-reported mental illnesses may be treated on a scale not yet seen in military medicine.

They also discussed how the perception of soldiers has shifted. While Laura Bush remembers how Vietnam veterans were shunned and shamed, Michelle Obama noted with optimism that public opinion has shifted in favor of our veterans. They both attribute this in part to their efforts in showing support for troops overseas and at home.

Both women agreed that the efforts of family in helping soldiers adjust upon their return home cannot be understated, and they are committed to helping those families support their loved ones through the transition to civilian life.

Finally, Michelle Obama discussed her work to change licensing laws in all states so that military spouses who must relocate frequently won’t have to undergo unnecessarily long relicensing processes every time they cross state borders. This helps military spouses maintain career continuity whether they are an anesthesiologist or a nurse or an attorney.

Like the First Ladies before them, both Laura Bush and Michelle Obama will continue to use their political capital to encourage the public to support soldiers and their families.

You can watch the entire conference on the National Archives YouTube channel.

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