First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies by Kate Andersen Brower

Posted January 18, 2020 by Amber in Reviews / 0 Comments

First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies

First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies

by Kate Andersen Brower

Publisher: HarperCollins on April 12, 2016
Genre: Biography, History, Non-Fiction, Politics, US History
Target Age Group: Adult
Rating: ★★½

Check out this book on Goodreads

One of the most underestimated—and challenging—positions in the world, the First Lady of the United States must be many things: an inspiring leader with a forward-thinking agenda of her own; a savvy politician, skilled at navigating the treacherous rapids of Washington; a wife and mother operating under constant scrutiny; and an able CEO responsible for the smooth operation of countless services and special events at the White House. Now, as she did in her smash #1 bestseller The Residence, former White House correspondent Kate Andersen Brower draws on a wide array of untapped, candid sources—from residence staff and social secretaries to friends and political advisers—to tell the stories of the ten remarkable women who have defined that role since 1960.

Brower offers new insights into this privileged group of remarkable women, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Patricia Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama. The stories she shares range from the heartwarming to the shocking and tragic, exploring everything from the first ladies’ political crusades to their rivalries with Washington figures; from their friendships with other first ladies to their public and private relationships with their husbands. She also offers a detailed and insightful new portrait of one of the most-watched first ladies of all time, Hillary Clinton, asking what her tumultuous years in the White House may tell us about her own historic presidential run . . . and what life could be like with the nation’s first First Husband.


One of the things that struck me immediately about how First Women is written is that it is incredibly biased.  It becomes quickly evident which First Ladies Kate Andersen Brower liked, which ones she didn’t like, and which traits in them she respected.  She gives the greatest credit to the First Women who focused on their children, family, and supporting their husbands first and foremost.

In a book that really should be a celebration of feminine dignity and power, it feels petty and small.  It cast a shadow over the entire book for me.  Brower mentioned multiple times how Jackie O. or Betty Ford or Nancy Regan were their husband’s greatest supporters and “her husband this” or “her husband that”. … The framework for these women’s stories felt outdated and failed to credit them as individuals, instead chaining accomplishments to those related to their husbands or children.  Every mention of Michelle Obama was that she hated the White House, created fatal etiquette mistakes, and made problems for the staff and her husband by being unhappy.  Similarly, Hillary Clinton’s narrative mostly discusses her support of Bill or raising Chelsea, only mentioning her career as an example of First Women on “both sides of the spectrum”.

While I am not close enough to any of these women to claim whether or not Brower’s views are accurate, it does color her narrative.  Because I was still interested in the subject, I persevered and tried to read between the lines and ignore the ugly shadow.  Brower’s personal commentary tainted the non-fiction in a way that was impossible to completely ignore, and it left a sour taste in my mouth.

Ultimately, Brower showed the greatest respect for those first ladies who were graceful or sophisticated.  She says kind things about Ladybird Johnson, Jacqueline Onassis-Kennedy, and Betty Ford.  She uses Hillary Clinton’s words to defend Nancy Reagan’s extravagant china purchase ($200,000 for a complete set of china for the White House)… and she criticizes the “Marie-Antoinette” expenses Michelle Obama caused when she family took a brief vacation.  …  Honestly, it is hard to talk about any of the things I learned about these other First Ladies without mentioned some sort of side-comment Brower made about Michelle Obama.  The one kind thing she says was that Michelle was the only one since Jackie who came closest to becoming a fashion icon.  Not in the same caliber, of course, but there is a slight nod of respect to this one small accomplishment.  Hillary Rodham Clinton, additionally, is criticized repeatedly for her lack of femininity and not changing her last name, including blaming her in this way for some of Bill Clinton’s early losses.

Since Jackie O., First Women have all had causes that the Office of the First Lady pursues while in the office.  While the projects lately have focused on children (both Bush administrations fought for childhood literacy, Michelle Obama’s focus on childhood obesity, Melania Trump’s cyberbullying) others have focused on mental health (Rosalynn Carter), drug awareness (Nancy Reagan), women’s rights (Betty Ford) and others.  I really, really would have liked to hear more about these projects and each of the first women and their cultural contributions.  The content focuses more on their relationships with one another, the White House staff, and their adjustments to living in the White House itself and under the lens of the country.  There’s a little conversation about some of their relationships with one another, and those moments are nice, but event planning and garden tours are very low on the list of contributions these important women have made to our society.

Organizationally, First Women is all over the place.  Since the book opened with a visit between Hillary Clinton and Jackie Kennedy, it was clear early on that this book would not be presented chronologically.  Topics were chaotic as well, being explored with one First Lady, then the book would move on to something else, then it would circle back again to that conversation again with another First Lady.

While this book isn’t boring, and there’s an appeal to it as a way to access these women, the bias shades the stories and their contributions are not outlined as clearly as they could have been.  While I wouldn’t tell interested parties to avoid First Women, I don’t know that I would recommend it either.  There are moments of interest, but I just wasn’t crazy about the formation of the narrative.  Perhaps it was too broad a topic, and going forward I think I would seek out individual biographies rather than a collection like this one.


Writing: ★★
Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Sources: ★★★
Detail: ★★★
Delivery: ★★
Subject: ★★★★
Narrator: ★ 1/2
Personal Enjoyment: ★★ 1/2
Overall: ★★ 1/2


Are you interested in biographies about leading families?  Whether it’s the American presidential family, the British royals, or another group… who, if anyone, catches your interest?  Let me know in the comments!

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