For the fifth episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke with Maurine Beasley about her work exploring the relationship between first ladies and the press.
Professor Emerita at the University of Maryland, Beasley is the author of First Ladies and the Press, as well as several books focusing specifically on Eleanor Roosevelt (pictured above with radio host Mary Margaret McBride).
This episode is sponsored by the Quinnipiac University School of Communications.
Teri Finneman: [00:00:10] Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Teri Finneman, guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by the Quinnipiac University School of Communications, one of Linked In’s top ten best schools for media professionals, where students develop the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in today’s rapidly evolving media professions.
[00:00:40] “At her first press conference, Eleanor Roosevelt, uncertain of her role as hostess or leader, passed a box of candied grapefruit peel to the 35 women journalists. Nearly 60 years later, Hillary Clinton, an accomplished professional woman and lawyer, tried to mollify her critics by handing out her chocolate chip cookie recipe. These exchanges tell us as much about the social and political roles of women in America as they do about the relation of the first lady to the press and the public.”
[00:01:09] This summary of the book, First Ladies and the Press, remains as relevant today as it was when it first appeared a decade ago. In this episode, First Ladies author Maurine Beasley from the University of Maryland joins us to discuss her work and her longtime interest in Eleanor Roosevelt. Maurine, welcome to the show. Why is it worthwhile to study the relationship between the press and first ladies?
Maurine Beasley: [00:01:32] Well, first ladies are very much a part of the U.S. political system. They’ve been a part of it actually in a way ever since George Washington, but certainly since Eleanor Roosevelt, and increasingly so in recent presidencies. The first ladies have been depended on, do a lot of the heavy water carrying, for their presidential mates, although we may not perceive it that way, but I believe that is the case.
Teri Finneman: [00:02:03] Historically, what have journalists focused on when covering first ladies?
Maurine Beasley: [00:02:07] Oh, unfortunately they have focused on fashion, what are they wearing and the way they have presided at state dinners. But I think they’re missing some of the main points, which is that first ladies, let us look at Michelle Obama, and before her, at Laura Bush, were great fundraisers for the parties that their husbands were heads of. You get a crowd, come out and see the first lady, and people would contribute. So, they become political campaigners on the part of their husbands and their husband’s political parties.
Teri Finneman: [00:02:47] So, besides fashion, what are some other problematic ways the press has covered first ladies?
Maurine Beasley: [00:02:50] Oh, they’ve been put down, in the sense that I think women in general have been put down, you know, and subordinated. People who are sort of there to soften the news and to look like they’re, well, first ladies are expected to always be gracious and hospitable and dignified. They’re not really allowed particularly really to show all of their aspects to the public.
Teri Finneman: [00:03:32] What do you think of the press coverage of Melania Trump?
Maurine Beasley: [00:03:35] I think it’s a very interesting subject because Melania, apparently, is using fashion possibly to make critical comments about the administration of her husband, although we don’t really know. Sometimes, she is seen standing by his side smiling graciously, as first ladies are supposed to do. But other times she is seen standing by his side scowling, and people wonder about that. And one time she swatted away his hand in a picture and that’s not what first ladies are supposed to do.
Teri Finneman: [00:04:14] What do you think should be the role of the first lady? So, historically you have some of our first ladies who haven’t done much, and in recent times we’ve had more active first ladies. Melania has been criticized for not doing as much and being as active as we’ve become accustomed to, with Michelle Obama and Laura Bush and going back to Eleanor Roosevelt. What do you think the first lady should be?
Maurine Beasley: [00:04:40] What do I think the first lady should be? Well, actually, I think she should be paid. I think she’s a public official, and in fact the courts have ruled that when the first lady is carrying out governmental business, and sometimes first ladies do go abroad to represent the president, say at the funeral of some Head of State or something, that she is a public official. So, on some occasions she does meet the criteria that the courts have given for public officials.
[00:05:10] But personally, I would like to see her either paid to carry out a particular role, which is described, a job description, or I would like to see her just be allowed to be herself. Now, in the case of Michelle Obama, here’s a woman who engendered criticism from some when she made a comment that was interpreted as her anger at the way African Americans have been treated in this country. And then that raised such a furor that the whole time she was in the White House she never did anything particularly controversial. The woman has a Harvard law degree, a woman highly intelligent, having a well-paid career. And here she describes herself, ‘Well, I’m just really Mrs. Mom and I’m giving most of my attention to my two school-age daughters.’
[00:06:12] Fine, but the causes that she promoted, although most worthy, aid to military families and an attack on childhood obesity, are not the kind of causes that are controversial. And the interviews she gave were to women’s magazines or to television programs where she was treated rather softly and kindly. One had the feeling that she had a great deal more to say on racial issues, for example, all the murders in Chicago, where she was from. And she did do some work with underprivileged African-American girls, but nevertheless, for the most part, she ended her tenure in the White House beloved by the American public for the fact that she wasn’t particularly controversial. She projected the image, I think, of a woman who loved her husband. And they projected an image of a very fine family, which no doubt they are. But I still don’t think that we were allowed to see her in all of her intellectual depth. I think she was forced to kind of muzzle herself to be popular.
Teri Finneman: [00:07:41] So, let’s talk about that. How much influence do you think the first lady has on her husband’s political career?
Maurine Beasley: [00:07:47] Well, we don’t know what sort of advice the first lady may give her husband when they get together privately. Some say Melania Trump has some voice in what President Trump does, but we don’t really know that. There’s been a tremendous lot of scholarship on the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. And we know, going back to Eleanor Roosevelt, that she would tell him her views in no uncertain terms, but he didn’t necessarily go along with them. She wanted him to back an anti-lynching bill and he didn’t do it because he didn’t want to offend the Southern Democrats in Congress.
[00:08:32] We also know that she was against his penning up the Japanese Americans in these internment camps, or we could call them concentration camps, during World War II, she knew that was awful. But after he decided to do it she didn’t publicly criticize him. So, I think the first ladies do have a lot, perhaps, to give their husbands in the way of private advice. But we aren’t really privy to that. Whether she should be able to allow herself to speak publicly about her views would certainly suit me as a feminist. I think women should not have to soften their voices or quiet their voices. But the effect that she has on the administration is really hard to ferret out because of the privacy between the husband and wife.
Teri Finneman: [00:09:43] So, talking about Eleanor Roosevelt, you’ve made a very successful career out of your work on Eleanor. How did you first become interested in studying her?
Maurine Beasley: [00:09:51] I was interested in Eleanor Roosevelt’s press conferences because I was always interested in Washington women journalists. I was a journalist myself in Washington for about ten years with The Washington Post and I knew the problems that women encountered, the sexism and the difficulties in being taken seriously as a real reporter, as a professional woman. And the effort to get women pushed aside from the normal lines of advancement into a so-called soft news, into feature stories, into things that sort of padded out the newspaper but were not as significant as the political stories that were on the front page. I knew that women had a terrible time getting accepted as reporters of political matters and politics is what counts in Washington. So, I thought Roosevelt’s women only press conferences would be a very good subject to study when I change from the field of journalism itself to the teaching of journalism.
Teri Finneman: [00:11:02] So, expanding on that, why did Eleanor do that?
Maurine Beasley: [00:11:06] Oh. She realized that women were terribly discriminated against in terms of assignments and in terms of hiring practices of the newspapers of the day. Her intimate friend, Lorena Hickok put her onto that, and said, ‘Look Eleanor, I know you don’t want to be first lady,’ and Eleanor didn’t, Lorena eventually wrote a book about Eleanor called Reluctant First Lady.
[00:11:31] Eleanor didn’t want to be first lady because she didn’t just want to sit in the White House and pour tea, which is what she had seen her aunt, Theodore Roosevelt’s wife do. But Lorena said, ‘Look, if you get the women reporters together you can get them on your side. And you will be able to make an impact yourself and make public statement yourself.’ Of course, Eleanor had a real problem. She didn’t want to step on her husband’s toes either, and she said that to these women when she had her first press conference, which was in 1933.
[00:12:10] Actually, she had a press conference even before Franklin Roosevelt had his first press conference following his inauguration as president. She said to these women, ‘Now, I see you as the interpreters to the nation of what goes on in the White House.’ So, she saw them as a group that she could use to try to make the White House a symbol of interest in the causes that she personally pushed. Eleanor’s heart was always in the right place, she was always a social worker at heart, you know, and she was always interested in the causes of the downtrodden or the people who were left out, the marginal people. She had a real affinity for understanding those who were in the desperate circumstances, in the Depression there were plenty of them. She saw these women as her conduits to the nation as a whole. She became more comfortable in her role of first lady, making many public speeches herself.
[00:13:25] She’d been making speeches actually even before she became first lady. She kind of moved, actually, beyond the press conferences and began to speak more and more for herself through things she wrote and published, her daily newspaper column, My Day. But she always had these press conferences. It was one of the first things she did when she was first lady, and actually she had her last press conference on the day that Franklin Roosevelt died unexpectedly.
Teri Finneman: [00:14:09] So, like her husband, Eleanor Roosevelt became known to be very media savvy as you were just talking about. So, how did this shy and insecure woman transform herself into just such a strong strategic communicator?
Maurine Beasley: [00:14:16] I think she simply grew in the role, but these press conferences that we’ve just been talking about helped her a lot. And she had a small coterie of women who were her sisters at heart and who were the central group of her press conference girls, as they called themselves. One was Ruby Black, and I just published a book in 2017 called, Ruby A. Black: Eleanor Roosevelt, Puerto Rico, and the Politics of Washington.
[00:15:00] Eleanor depended on Ruby Black quite a bit. Ruby Black was a reporter for the United Press International. Well, I’m sorry, it wasn’t United Press International in those days, it was United Press, it was a wire service which was a competitor of The Associated Press. However, the UP would not hire women, and Ruby got that job, covering Eleanor, simply because Eleanor refused to let any man cover her press conferences. So, Ruby felt very indebted to Eleanor, and Ruby and Eleanor became pretty close friends and the point in my book, in 2017, was that Eleanor and Ruby together more or less conspired to advance the political fortunes of Eleanor’s boss. I’m sorry, not Eleanor’s boss, of Ruby’s boss, Luis, um I always get his name kind of mixed up cause I’m not very good at Spanish. But anyway, he was the main political figure in Puerto Rico, Luis Muñoz Marín, of course. He became sort of the voice of the New Deal in Puerto Rico politics, which is very complicated. It was complicated then, it’s complicated now. And if you go to San Juan today, the airport’s named for him and there are things all over Puerto Rico that are tributes to him.
[00:16:34] He’s Puerto Rico’s leading political figure in the 20th century, Luis Muñoz Marín and he ran a newspaper, La Democracia. Ruby was the Washington correspondent for that newspaper and because she was so close to Eleanor, she could get Eleanor to invite Luis to the White House and have tea with her. Then through Eleanor, he was involved in meeting with Franklin and had a great impact on the policy of the United States government toward Puerto Rico, a territory then as it is now. So, the point of that book that I wrote was to show how Eleanor used her position as first lady, in connivance really, with a Washington woman journalist who was a major supporter of her in her press conferences to push a particular brand of Puerto Rican politics to advance the career of a particular politician. And one of the things about the first lady, of course, is she can provide entre to the president himself, and Eleanor did that in a lot of cases.
[00:18:00] In fact, historians are still trying to sort out all the impact that Eleanor had on policies because they weren’t written down necessarily, personal comments she may have made to Franklin, and just conversations. However, getting back to the press conferences, Ruby Black was a very important member of these press conferences. And she was so grateful to Eleanor for getting her the job and for advancing her career in other ways because Eleanor would sometimes see other people who Ruby would send to her, and she helped make Ruby an important figure in Washington journalism, even though you might say, well, it wasn’t perhaps so ethical for Ruby to use her position as a reporter to advance the interests of others before Eleanor, but anyway, Ruby did. And then there were some other people, Bess Furman, who covered the press conferences for the Associated Press. She, too, was quite friendly with Eleanor, on a personal basis. There were some other women, May Craig, who worked for Maine newspapers and later became kind of the star of Meet the Press, first on the radio and then on television.
[00:19:27] So, these women used the press conferences, and Eleanor used the press conferences, to advance themselves, but in doing so, they also played an important role in advancing the interests of women in general. I know my mother was a bored housewife in a little town in Missouri, Sedalia, Missouri, and she used to read me, as a small child, Eleanor Roosevelt’s comments, My Day about what she did in the White House. And of course, one of the things she did was to hold these press conferences for women, and she was always inviting women of note into the White House, either to sometimes appear before the press conferences, or to have private meetings with her, or to be there for some ceremonies. And then my mother would read about that and she’d say, ‘Oh, what this woman is doing,’ even though my family was Republican, she would say, ‘Well, I’m sure that she,’ Eleanor, ‘is better than he,’ Franklin, ‘is.’ My mother saw her as a woman who was moving out into the world and was advancing the cause of women. I think that’s why she read me these columns. She was saying, well, you know, look what a woman can do.
Teri Finneman: [00:20:53] So, earlier you mentioned the name, Lorena Hickok, and there has been some debate about the extent of the personal relationship between Lorena and Eleanor, and whether it was romantic in nature. What is your stance on this, and is this even a worthwhile debate or is just prurient interest?
Maurine Beasley: [00:21:10] Well, I think it’s a worthwhile debate in the fact that today we accept same sex relationships and we don’t look so askance on them, that is, many portions of the public do not, other portions of the public feel differently on this matter. But I think if you get into the Roosevelt material, you will find that Lorena Hickok’s picture, for example, has been cut out. Some of the photographs that were taken of people around Eleanor at the time, which Lorena was there by her side, and you would find that this relationship certainly was minimized.
[00:21:57] Today, I don’t think we are so horrified by it as they might have been in other earlier periods. Nor do I think it’s all just prurient interest because I think it has something to say about our acceptance of same sex relationships. Did Lorena Hickok have a good influence on Eleanor Roosevelt in terms of helping Eleanor to develop her role as first lady? I would say she did.
[00:22:29] She was the inspiration for Eleanor’s press conferences, she also helped edit of some of Eleanor’s magazine articles. Eleanor was a terrific writer of magazine articles, mainly for women’s periodicals, Ladies’ Home Journal in particular, but others too, later McCalls. Eleanor would consult her if you look at their correspondence, much of which was destroyed through the years, a lot of it by Lorena, I think some of it by others. You could see that Lorena was advising her on professional grounds in terms of how to develop what we would today call a media presence and how to write articles that were suitable for the media of the day. Yeah, I don’t think you can really look at Eleanor Roosevelt’s career without considering the impact that Lorena had on it. Now, I don’t know that we will ever know precisely what these women did privately and we probably have no need to know. But I don’t think it’s just all smutty gossip when you want to talk about them, but you’ve got to look at the impact that these two women had on each other. Of course, Lorena, in her later life, fell into financial problems and Eleanor took care of her in the Hyde Park area for years. Yeah, I just don’t think you can see Eleanor without seeing Lorena too. And Lorena was a highly competent professional woman until she had various health problems later in life and financial difficulties.
Teri Finneman: [00:24:25] So, we’ve talked about Eleanor’s newspaper column called My Day. You just mentioned that she wrote magazine articles and she also had a radio program. Have we ever seen a first lady this media savvy?
Maurine Beasley: [00:24:36] No, actually not even in today’s media drenched world. And you didn’t even mention the books she wrote while she was in the White House too, she wrote those also. She was a prodigious worker. She was media savvy, of course, Franklin was pretty media savvy. In fact, I mentioned Ruby Black, well Ruby Black was married to a man who was also an important Washington reporter of the time named Herbert Little, nobody remembers him. But he was an influential Washington journalist connected with the Scripps-Howard newspaper empire. And Franklin and Eleanor would invite them to Hyde Park, and invited them up to Campobello, invited them down to Warm Springs. And I think they had, certainly, personal things in common and friendly, but I think there was also the desire of the Roosevelts to court the press.
[00:25:39] And they weren’t the only reporters who were invited to Hyde Park, et cetera. Franklin understood the need to get out there and make friends with journalists. Eleanor became just as good as Franklin at that particular skill. But I don’t think it was all just manipulation either, I think it was because both Franklin and Eleanor, particularly Eleanor, had certain social causes that they thought could be presented to the country only through political avenues, which they were personifying. Of course, the political avenue for them was the Democratic Party in all of its manifestations, some of which were quite corrupt, but I think they had the interests of the country at heart.
Teri Finneman: [00:26:38] After Pearl Harbor, Eleanor Roosevelt gave a speech on the radio about the attack even before Franklin addressed the nation with his famous Day in Infamy speech. Let’s listen to a brief clip of it here.
Eleanor Roosevelt: [00:26:50] Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I’m speaking to you tonight at a very serious moment in our history. The cabinet is convening and the leaders in Congress are meeting with the president. The State Department and Army and Navy officials have been with the president all afternoon. In fact, the Japanese ambassador was talking to the president at the very time that Japan’s airships were bombing our citizens in Hawaii and the Philippines and sinking one of our transports loaded with lumber on its way to Hawaii. By tomorrow morning, the members of Congress will have a full report and be ready for action. In the meantime, we the people are already prepared for action.
Teri Finneman: [00:27:31] I find this speech to be just astounding, that you have the first lady essentially delivering a war message ahead of the U.S. entry into World War II. How does this example illustrate the kind of power she had as first lady?
Maurine Beasley: [00:27:44] Well, it illustrates one thing that I hadn’t touched on, and should have touched on, which is the fact that, to date, she is the only first lady who carried on a paid career at the time she was in the White House. And the reason she spoke to the American public before Franklin after that terrible attack on Pearl Harbor was because she had been contracted to give a series of speeches for the Pan American coffee bureau sponsored broadcasts. So, she had a commitment to be on the air that particular Sunday and that’s how she happened to make note of this horrible fact. She was the only first lady ever to manage to do that, other first ladies have written books but generally have given the proceeds of the books to some good cause, or they’ve written about some White House pet or the White House gardens or something of that nature that again, is not in controversy.
Teri Finneman: [00:28:53] Now, today we think of Eleanor Roosevelt as one of our nation’s greatest first ladies and she often tops first lady’s rankings. But what did the public of the time think of her when she was first lady?
Maurine Beasley: [00:29:05] Well, she certainly had people who didn’t like her. She had a tremendous number of people who thought she was awful. However, in public opinion, polling was going on at that time, although somewhat in its infancy, and she would rank higher in the polls than Franklin on occasions because I think people thought she was actually a good woman helping her husband. And I think they thought, like my mother the Republican, ‘well, you know, she’s a good woman there in the White House.’ She managed to take the stereotypical version of a woman as being somewhat purer and kinder than the male who was tough and rough and admitted that to the public as her way of helping her husband in office. So, people accepted that I think. I don’t think they saw her as a rival to him. I don’t think they saw her as somebody who was opposed to him.
[00:30:20] Today, there are some, in this polarized atmosphere, who look at Mrs. Trump and say, ‘well, you know, she’s wearing this or that inappropriate attire, stiletto pumps when she goes down to visit hurricane victims and she’s doing that to try to get revenge on her husband because she doesn’t like his policy.’ There wasn’t any of that.
Teri Finneman: [00:30:45] There’s been so much written on the Roosevelts, the Lincolns, the Kennedys. How have you tried to distinguish your work on Eleanor from all the other authors who have written about her?
Maurine Beasley: [00:30:55] Well, what I tried to do was point out how important it was to Eleanor to make her own money. I was a co-editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt encyclopedia and I really think the article in there that is most new information is the one that’s based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s income tax returns. And my husband and I were the first people to see those at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library when they were finally released to the public. You know, over the years, they’ve kept some material there under lock and key until certain times when it’s appropriate for them to release them.
[00:31:34] And those income tax returns speak for themselves, they show how much money she was making on her own. She made sometimes as much money as he was, or more, while she was in the White House. And I think that that is perhaps a contribution that we tried to make to the Eleanor Roosevelt scholarship in in the Eleanor Roosevelt encyclopedia. And the first major book I wrote, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Media, was trying to point out was that she learned from these media women, but they also learned from her.
[00:32:15] And then, of course, she kind of moved beyond the most of them. And some of them, Ruby particularly in her later days as she became prey to alcoholism, they would then, you know, go to Eleanor and she tried to help them find jobs and they sort of became her supplicants. But originally, they were kind of on an equal basis because they were trying to establish careers. And Eleanor showed that the White House and the role of first lady could be combined into a career. Now, certainly, Mrs. Truman, who followed her, didn’t believe in that type of thing and hated Washington, spent as much time as she could at home in Independence.
[00:33:13] But some of the other first ladies who came along tried to pattern themselves after Eleanor, Lady Bird Johnson in particular in her use of the media to enhance the program of President Johnson. After Johnson came out in favor of civil rights, he was actually almost afraid to go in the south to campaign, so he sent Lady Bird special because he thought, well, southerners will have to be somewhat courteous toward a woman. She writes in her book that was subsequently published in the White House Diary that she’s patterning herself after Eleanor Roosevelt. Hillary Clinton, as first lady, also made comments about patterning herself after Eleanor Roosevelt. We know that Hillary had some problems because people thought she was too aggressive in the White House and wasn’t sufficiently lady-like. To fit this role, the constantly dignified and graceful first lady, she got into the health care business and didn’t succeed very well. When she supposedly stuck her finger into too many White House pies, she was heavily criticized. But in answer to what I think I’ve added to the Eleanor Roosevelt scholarship, emphasis of Eleanor as a career woman herself.
Teri Finneman: [00:34:44] Great. So, our final question of the show is, why does journalism history matter?
Maurine Beasley: [00:34:49] Why does journalism history matter? Well, why does any history matter? How do we know what we’re going to do tomorrow if we don’t look at what we did yesterday and see what we did wrong yesterday? And if so-and-so is going to become first lady tomorrow or, for that matter, if such and such is going to become the first husband tomorrow or the first gentleman tomorrow, I would think those people would want to see how others have handled the role of the presidential spouse. Now, of course, the study of first lady is just a very slim portion of journalism history as a whole, but I can’t imagine a more powerful institution in society than the media today and journalism is certainly part of that. It’s the founding block for the media system that we have now. And how can we make sensible decisions or good decisions about how we’re going to handle our country as we move forward if we don’t look at the history of this institution?
[00:36:00] Thank you all for tuning in and thanks again to our sponsor, Quinnipiac University School of Communications. And special thanks to CSPAN for the radio clip in this episode. Until next time, I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: Good night and good luck.