Showtime’s anthology drama series “The First Lady” is a passionate retelling of the lives and workings of three of the most influential first ladies in American history. A presentation packed with intense drama, politics, and pertinent questions about gender roles often invoked, the show is thoroughly enjoyable for most of its part. Whatever little seems drab and unnecessarily long is ultimately made up by powerful performances by Gillian Anderson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Viola Davis.
‘The First Lady’ Season 1: Plot Summary – Who Are The First Ladies Shown In The Series?
From a very young age, Eleanor Roosevelt had gotten used to the sorrows of life, with her mother passing away when she was just eight, and her father when she was ten. An orphan but born into a family with stupendous wealth and privilege, Eleanor was sent to the Allenswood School for Girls, in London, to complete her education. She was soon summoned back to New York for her coming-out party, an event organized for high-society young adult girls to get to know people of other families of similar stature, as a way to find suitors. Eleanor was not much interested in such a fancy lifestyle, but she did attend, on the insistence of her beloved uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, the President of the USA at the time. It was during this event that she first met Franklin, a distant cousin of hers, and the two grew romantically interested in each other. After some time of courtship, Eleanor and Franklin married in 1903 and started living a life full of love and ease. Franklin D. Roosevelt was still some time away from active politics, though, and Eleanor’s realizations about herself and her potential had not yet dawned upon her.
Elizabeth Bloomer, mostly called Betty by her parents, had her fair share of learning about the world and its social injustices despite growing up in a financially and socially upward family. After her father most probably committed suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide, Betty’s mother had to carry the family on her own shoulders, and an early idea of how working women were still not given enough respect in the 1930s found its place in Betty’s perception. Being a skilled and talented dancer, Betty pursued dance as a profession while also attending dance schools, but a certain moment from that time lived on negatively inside her head. On one occasion, she was told off by her dance master (renowned dancer Martha Graham) as not being good enough and not being someone who cared about her body due to Betty’s occasional recreational drinking. She was already married, but to a sickly and alcoholic man, when Betty first met Gerald Ford, a lawyer with an avid interest in politics. With her already desiring for a divorce from her first marriage, the cause was strengthened with this newfound love, and soon enough, she married for the second time, changing her name to Betty Ford.
Unlike the two other women in focus, Michelle Robinson’s biggest challenge in life was not the vanities of high society or the struggles of love, but constant social and professional prejudice, because of her skin color and because of her African-American heritage. Extremely sharp and intelligent throughout her school and early years, she wanted to pursue her major in sociology at Princeton and then study law at Harvard. This would never be an easy task for a black woman in the 1970s and 80s, and Michelle was even told by her academic counselor in school to not pursue such dreams because she would not be “culturally fit” at a prestigious (white-dominated) university like Princeton. Michelle was never one to let such casual racism from stopping her way, even though it remained part of her life forever. After making it to Princeton, the mother of a girl who was supposed to be her roommate asked authorities to change her daughter’s room only because she did not want her to share a room with a black girl. It was not just racial inequality, but also economic inequality that perplexed young Michelle, as she encountered the privilege of urgent treatment being provided by hospitals to people with more insurance, all while people in more severe conditions but with less insurance money had to wait in a queue. While practicing law as a profession in 1989, Michelle first met another young and charming lawyer of color, Barack Obama, and the two started going out on dates. After a couple of years of courtship and growing love between the two, Michelle and Barack were married. Some years later, they began their journey toward becoming the first African-American presidential family in the history of the US.
What Influences Did Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford & Michelle Obama Have On America’s Presidential Governance?
Eleanor Roosevelt was influential in her husband Franklin’s political career for much of the time before the latter was elected President in 1933. Beginning to make public appearances for speeches in political rallies, Eleanor soon gained recognition of her own as a powerful public speaker and one very influential in gathering votes for the Democratic Party, even more so after she took on the position of First Lady. Due to Franklin’s paralysis due to polio, which limited him to a wheelchair, Eleanor started attending rallies and making speeches often on his behalf. She gradually grew aware of how crucial a position she held at a time during which the country was going through the Great Depression, and her personal visits and conversations with people standing in front of employment offices and food ration shops had an immensely positive effect on the citizens. Not all was well in her private life, though, as she found out about Franklin’s secret affair with her own secretary in the White House, Lucy Rutherford. Although asking for a divorce at first, Eleanor’s always disapproving mother-in-law and the inevitable scandal that would follow convinced her to stay put in her marriage; but she did sternly end any intimate or romantic relations with Franklin thenceforth. As part of her routine diplomatic visits, Eleanor Roosevelt got involved with women’s groups, harping on the importance of women’s suffrage, and kindled an already present fire inside her mind about how women were not being given equal opportunities in a predominantly male society. Around this time, she made acquaintance with journalist Lorena Hickock, better known as Hick among her friends, and the two gradually built a strong relationship of friendship, mentorship, and romance; and Eleanor would also invite Hick to take on a role inside the White House, making her a permanent resident of the same during that time.
Along with promoting women’s welfare and opportunities, Eleanor Roosevelt also openly spoke about racial injustice, as many US states still maintained apartheid-like segregation laws at the time. When Black singer Marian Anderson was denied entry to the Washington Constitution Hall for a performance, by the Daughters of the American Revolution (a lineage-based women’s group only for those directly linked with American independence fighters), Eleanor immediately canceled her membership in the group and then personally arranged a concert for Anderson in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Within a few more years, WWII was close by, and Eleanor took stern sides now as well, as she tried her best to convince Franklin to let in ships with Jewish immigrants into America. Despite the President initially not wanting to do so because that would make the country choose sides, the scenario quickly shifted after the Pearl Harbor bombings. After the USA directly involved itself in WWII, Eleanor Roosevelt took on an even bigger and more magnanimous role as she often visited nations of the Allied powers as part of America’s foreign affairs.
Quite unlike Eleanor Roosevelt or Michelle Obama, Betty Ford’s struggles and fights were mostly within herself, at least initially. After marrying Gerald and having a few children of their own, she had a difficult time trying to settle into the role of a housewife and that of a mother. While her husband was away from home most of the time, climbing up the ladder of professional politics, Betty had to stay put and manage the needs of their children and her own frustrations and despair over her failed career as a dancer. All this, mixed with a habit of occasional drinking and pill-popping, took Betty towards mental breakdowns and instances when she would desperately want to go away from her kids and her house. Her life overall started to change at a time when her husband was thinking of retiring after some time. Gerald Ford quickly climbed up to the top role in the House of Representatives, and within a short while, he was also made the Vice President of the country. America was soon rocked by the Watergate scandal that immediately brought Richard Nixon down, and Gerald Ford was replaced as the new US President. After moving into the White House as the First Lady, Betty was overwhelmed by the place and the position, and also by the constant efforts of White House officials Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to keep her actions under their control. Her biggest setback came, though, when her husband pardoned Richard Nixon from all punishments for the Watergate scandal, a decision that Betty felt was very unfair. However, before she could spend too much time on the matter, a mammogram revealed a tumor, and she had to undergo a mastectomy for it. Convinced that her own personal suffering could be of learning to the general public, Betty Ford remained very open about her operation and then quickly busied herself with spreading breast cancer awareness. Finding herself gradually suited to the role of a public figure, Betty then also openly supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which aimed for equal laws and rights for American citizens irrespective of their gender.
Along with other female associates, Betty started operations in favor of the ERA from inside the White House, a move that was seen by Cheney and Rumsfeld as extremely harmful, as the issue was mostly against Republican politics. President Gerald Ford, though, sternly kept the two men away from his wife’s decisions and let her operate as she willed. Her ERA operations ended in some time, though, and more pressing matters regarding upcoming elections emerged; and now, the two bullish associates, Cheney and Rumsfeld, ask for Betty’s direct help in the campaign. During this while, her old habits of drinking and taking pills made a return, and perhaps moved towards borderline addiction. Despite all of Betty Ford’s best attempts, Gerald Ford ultimately loses to conservative Republican candidate Ronald Reagan, and the erstwhile First Lady again has to return to a life by herself.
Michelle Obama’s efforts in trying to be of service to the citizens of America were not limited to just helping her husband, but she herself was extremely qualified as a lawyer and had even worked a top job in the healthcare field as an executive in a Chicago hospital. It is with this background in healthcare and her experience of poor Americans struggling to get healthcare that Michelle supported Barack’s political campaigns. She, too, became an influential and powerful figure in the Presidential election campaign and decided to keep making use of her position in the role of First Lady. However, like Betty Ford had once experienced, Michelle, too, faced a foe in the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel. While Michelle expected to speak on important matters of social and racial inequality, Rahm wanted her to be more involved in less intense activities such as growing a garden in the White House and Vogue photoshoots. Michelle did not find her husband’s support in this context either, as Barack continued to live on with Rahm in office, and Michelle strongly fought back against the man’s absurd demands. Together with a close team of her own, Michelle vocally and publicly supported the President’s plans like Obamacare and the Healthy and Hunger-Free Act. Her first major disagreement with her husband came around the time of their reelection over the matter of same-sex marriage rights. Barack feared a loss of vote bank from the southern states and religious conservative voters if he supported LGBTQ+ rights, and was swaying against it, much to the disappointment of his wife as well as his growing daughters. Ultimately, forced by both his family as well as the increasingly rampant protests by LGBTQ+ members all over America, the Barack Obama government passed bills on gay rights, making gay marriages legal and recognized by law in the country. Michelle further remained vocal on more such oppressive situations in white-dominated America, such as racism and misused gun laws that were being used more and more in teenage school shootings. With their own term coming to an end, Michelle agreed to join hands with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in her fight against the abominable Donald Trump, despite Hillary having personally attacked Barrack multiple times before his Presidential election. Finally, Michelle Obama is left dumbfounded, quite like much of the world, when Trump is elected President, and she even has to console her daughters, making them understand to face and accept reality.
‘The First Lady’ Season 1: Ending Explained – What Happens To Eleanor, Elizabeth & Michelle After Their Terms End?
Eleanor Roosevelt’s term in the White House came to an end in 1945 after Franklin’s death from a cerebral hemorrhage. By now, she had made a stronghold for herself in politics, especially international relations, and the formation of a newer and more reformed League of Nations was already in the works at the time, with much of Franklin Roosevelt’s policies. Many of these policies were based on Eleanor’s ideas, and the woman was quickly appointed as the USA’s delegate by new President Harry Truman to the United Nations General Assembly. At a 1948 meeting of the UN in Paris, Eleanor spoke in favor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and this speech was received as a ray of new hope throughout most of the world. After Gerald Ford’s election loss, he and his family left the White House for a quieter life, but Betty again had to live mostly on her own, with her husband still out on political business. During this time, Betty once again fell victim to a terrible drug and alcohol addiction, and she even had to be put up at a rehab center. Despite fighting against all of her family members who wanted her to quit alcohol, Betty gradually came to terms with her failing life and finally made it out of the rehab center. She then continued social service in this field, and established her own Betty Ford Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center to help others recover from such addictions. In 1991, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to social work. After leaving the White House in 2017, Michelle Obama continued (and still does so) to remain involved in political and social awareness campaigns. In 2019, she published her memoir titled “Becoming,” which became an instant success. The series ends with her attending a gathering with young high-school students where teenagers excitedly ask her questions, looking up at her as their beloved icon of representation.
There remains an obvious doubt as to how much of “The First Lady” is objective truth and how much of it is an exercise of creative license. But if that conflict is set aside, the series overall successfully delivers what it intends to present—the very crucial role that the wives of Presidents played at three specific junctures of American history. What it does even more finely is raise the question of who a First Lady is, whether the First Lady’s role is simply limited to that of a docile and soft wife of a President, or whether they can be seen as political leaders and influencers themselves, but ones who always remain in the shadow of the President of the United States.
“The First Lady” is a 2022 Drama Biopic Series created by Aaron Cooley.