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From left to right: Hillary Rodham Clinton (afagan | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), Michelle Obama (queen of subtle | CC BY-NC 2.0), and Martha Washington (Boston Public Library | CC BY 2.0).  

In United States history, the roles of past First Ladies are often buried by the accomplishments and failures of the President. In a new exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, a Penn professor is working to make sure the leading women are properly represented. 

The exhibit, Every Eye is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States, was curated by Class of 1940 Bicentennial Term Associate Professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw to explore the influential lives of America's First Ladies with the use of portraits and other artistic representations. Shaw discussed the exhibit with more than 200 audience members at a virtual event presented by Penn Alumni on Jan. 19. 

Shaw, a senior historian at the Smithsonian, said she hopes the exhibition offers a glimpse into the lives of the women as they navigated their role as the First Lady.

“It is an effort to think about American women’s history and how women who seem [to] have been as central and incredibly important to our history, like First Ladies, have been invisible," Shaw said. "This is a way to bring them into the light and into public recognition.” 

The show, which can be viewed virtually through May, includes 60 portraits of former First Ladies, spanning all of U.S. history from Martha Washington to Melania Trump. The portraits are accompanied by additional objects on loan from the White House, the National First Ladies’ Library, and several presidential sites, such as a short cape worn by Mary Lincoln, Nancy Reagan’s second inaugural gown, and the dress Michelle Obama wore for her official portrait. 

“One of the most interesting things is you can see yourself in relation to these women — some of them are short, some of them are tall, others are really tiny — and it makes them real in a way that a painted portrait or a photograph which doesn’t bring them into your physical space in the same way,” Shaw said.

The role of the First Lady gave many of the women a platform to continue advocating for issues important to them even after leaving the White House, Shaw said. Julia Tyler, the wife of former President John Tyler, used her notability to advocate for the abolition of slavery after leaving the White House, she added. 

“She publicly made an argument and she felt empowered by having been First Lady when most other American women did not have that kind of a voice," Shaw said. "The experience as First Lady allowed her to challenge these gender norms.” 

Similarly, former First Lady Betty Ford advocated for abortion rights, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and spoke openly about her fight against breast cancer, defying expectations for a woman in the public eye.

Shaw said she found Ford's story the most fascinating of all the First Ladies because of her outspokenness and her belief that she would never become a First Lady.

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