“Feisty First Ladies and Other Unforgettable White House Women” by Autumn Stephens
c.2009, Viva Editions $16.95 215 pages

Remember last years’ political uproar?

No, I’m not talking about election stumping or finger-pointing. Not mavericks or Six-Packs or porcine lipstick (although who can forget those?).

No, think farther back. This uproar came with a conundrum of sorts: if a woman became President of the United States, what would we call her husband? “First Man” is too clinical. “First Gentleman” sounds so stodgy.

Maybe “First Guy”?

Or maybe not. At any rate, the argument is safe for now. But would you believe that our First Ladies weren’t so-called until our nation was several years old? In fact, would you believe that the first “First Lady” really wasn’t? Read more in “Feisty First Ladies and Other Unforgettable White House Women” by Autumn Stephens.

Back when our country was just-born and the Senate wanted to call George Washington “His Highness”, Martha Washington struggled to find a suitable name for herself in her new position. “Marquise” was a brief possibility but, in the end, “Lady Washington” sufficed. Incidentally, although portraits usually depict Martha as a dignified elderly woman, she was known for sassiness in her youth.

And speaking of less-than-demure behavior, Quaker-raised Dolley Madison was said to “cut quite a figure on the dance floor”. She loved snuff, plunging necklines, and fabulous chapeaus, and her patriotism is legendary: during the War of 1812, as the British were descending on the White House, she snatched a portrait of George Washington off the wall and hurried to safety. What most history books don’t tell you is that she also saved another portrait: that of herself.

Not content with rescuing paintings, Elizabeth Monroe once saved a human from the guillotine.

Yes, the White House has seen plenty of unique individuals: several First Ladies shunned publicity and became virtual hermits while their husbands were in office. There was once, arguably, a mentally ill First Lady, and a few who were quite possibly better-educated than their husbands. Some acted as advisors and offered unflagging support for their mates, while others (unhappily) shared the President not only with constituents but also with other women.

And then there was the twentieth-century First Lady who was rumored to have offed her husband to save him from embarrassment…

I was afraid, when I got this book, that it was going to be more blah-blah-blah about Washington Wives. I couldn’t have been farther from the truth. “Feisty First Ladies” is a lively book filled with thumbnail bios of not just First Ladies, but of daughters, nieces, and other women who left their marks on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Author Autumn Stephens surprised me, page after page, with delicious political gossip and little-known trivia-like factoids. I was pleased to see mini-chapters on the first woman who ran for President (long before women could vote); the irrepressible Martha Mitchell; the First Lady who refused to share a checkbook with her husband; and the woman whose name came from an Italian opera term.

Even if you’re tired of Washington business-as-usual, grab this book anyhow. “Feisty First Ladies” makes politics seem like a Party.