In one of the best episodes of Mrs America, the 2020 series that tackled the history of the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and its opposition, Sarah Paulson’s character Alice has an After Hours experience during the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston. The young housewife and staunch conservative ends her feminist immersion in a corner where a group of lesbian women are singing This Land Is Your Land. There, uninhibited thanks to drugs, she steals the limelight from the others and finishes off the end of Woody Guthrie’s anthem as a soloist. Another woman goes on to tell her that Guthrie was a socialist. Alice laughs incredulously. “You’ve been there in the middle singing a Marxist song,” her interlocutor insists. “It’s patriotic,” Alice says. “Exactly,” replies her new friend.
This Land Is Your Land, in the 2004 version by Sharon Jones, is the theme song for The First Lady, a series written by Aaron Cooley and directed by Susanne Bier, which narrates the lives of three American first ladies: Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama, played by Gillian Anderson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Viola Davis respectively. When Sharon Jones was still an anonymous singer, she worked as a prison officer and security guard. In the 1990s, she had been told by a Sony executive that she was too black, too fat, too short and too old—she was in her 40s—to make music. Her version of Guthrie’s song includes even the verses eliminated by the author himself to soften its political message. Jones emphasizes the lyrics’ sarcasm, intimating that the right to the United States does not exist for everyone.
The theme song sets up a stark contrast to the show: the disinherited of the American promised land and three of the most important women in the country’s history, spanning the key decades of the struggle for civil rights in the United States. How did the intimacy of three presidents, with their respective wives, influence American political life? The First Lady’s intentions are as ambitious as their end results are disappointing. What do three women, born in radically different times and environments, have in common, besides having married presidents of the United States? To begin with, according to Cathy Schulman, executive producer of the series, none of them wanted to be there. To understand them well, it is worth looking at the women individually.
As the niece of Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt was born into the American elite. She received an education that would still be considered privileged for a young woman today, a passport to independence unthinkable even for upper-class women at that time. She was prepared more to act as president than to marry one.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wife also has a temper inappropriate for her time. In the series trailer, she snaps to her husband, “you are the husband of a wife who has a mind and a life of her own.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt is played by Kiefer Sutherland, who is a better fit for the role of savior of democracy in the series 24 than that of the politician who promoted the greatest reform in the history of the United States.) Eleanor Roosevelt played the role of first lady longer than any other woman, because of her husband’s exceptional four terms in office.
Her audacity and ambition contrast with her tendency for depression and low self-esteem, personality traits that The First Lady captures well. The series is the first to portray in depth Roosevelt’s relationship with the journalist Lorena Hickok, played by Lily Rabe. It attempts to fill in the gaps left by the lovers’ correspondence, fantasizing, almost naively, about Roosevelt’s approval of his wife’s affair. It matters little how the president and his wife negotiated the limits of their relationship: we find ourselves before a pair that changed the history of the West. Let’s not forget that Eleanor, in addition to being a defender of women’s and civil rights, was the primary promoter of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
If Eleanor Roosevelt went down in history despite her weaknesses, Betty Ford did so thanks to hers. A stupendous Michelle Pfeiffer, who we see on screen less than we should, embodies the first lady who never expected to be one, the most complex and edgy character in the series. Betty Ford turned her mastectomy into a public conversation about contempt for women’s health. Outside the White House, her addictions to alcohol and painkillers led her to found the most famous rehabilitation clinic in the world. During the two and a half years that she served as first lady, she defended the Equal Rights Amendment, a central issue of the aforementioned Mrs America, as well as the right to abortion. She did so as part of the Republican Party, which until Reagan had yet to experience the social regression that now characterizes it.
Michelle Obama loses out in the series. Her character seems almost like a parody of herself. Her story is more recent, which brings challenges when it comes to fictionalizing her (Viola Davis has also assured that creative licenses have been taken to interpret her). Despite the fact that there is still much work to be done in terms of equality, compared to the other two, she arrived at the White House with the table already set. Her commendable work for healthy eating in the United States pales in comparison to the fights for equality of sex and race, despite the fact that we understand that Barack Obama’s defense of equal marriage and Obamacare are motivated by his family. The portrait of the relationship between private life and public life may be one of the series’ weak points. A story may be true without being realistic, and admirable women do not necessarily lend themselves to compelling hero’s journeys.