The raison d’être of the History Rhyme is the effort to help us learn more of our past and possibly helping us to find ways that the rhyming events of former years can help us to understand ourselves in our current day. In previous episodes, we have focused more on the fact that some people in our culture seem to have a very short-term perspective on the past. This leads to people talking about a movie as “the worst ever” or a winter like we are enduring as “the coldest ever.” As has been shown in earlier installments, such a limited understanding (or even awareness) of the past can make it difficult to understand the significance of current events or why we may react a certain way to such events. In its most innocuous form, we end up seeming provincial and foolish to our elders who have experienced a lot more than we have. At worst, it can lead us down paths that have been trod before without the instructive lessons learned by our fore-bearers. This is not to say that history repeats itself. It is to say that we might be able to learn from what was done before. However, this edition of History Rhyme is not about such a limited understanding of the past. Instead, we will look at the more refined and urbane cousin of historical arrogance, presentism, and how it can also shape our view of ourselves and our past.
Merriam-Webster defines presentism is “an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences.” According to Professor Lynn Hunt (former president of the American Historical Association) in her May 2002 essay “Against Presentism,”
Presentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior; the Greeks had slavery, even David Hume was a racist, and European women endorsed imperial ventures. Our forbears constantly fail to measure up to our present-day standards. (www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2002/against-presentism)
It is easy to assume that presentism is most often expressed by the young, the undereducated or the ill-informed. However, this is not always the case.
On Valentine’s Day, the results of a new survey was released by the Siena Research Institute ranking America’s First Ladies from best to worst on a variety of categories.[i] This is the fifth time in 32 years that the institute has released such a poll. The other surveys were in 1982, 1993, 2003 and 2008. This time the results are being released as a compliment to C-SPANs series First Ladies: Influence and Image. In a February 18, 2014 email to History Rhyme, a representative of the institute stated that the results of the poll were obtained by surveying 242 “scholars from colleges and universities across the country… experts in the field of First Ladies, Presidents, American History or to Political Science scholars that covered American studies.” Surely such a scholarly panel would be able to offer us a list that would be free of presentism and not swayed by popular perceptions. Perhaps not.
Before discussing some of the more interesting examples of presentism in this survey, a brief summary of the main findings are in order. The simplest way to do this is to examine the headlines that were released to the public:
“Eleanor Roosevelt Retains Top Spot as America’s Best First Lady”
“Michelle Obama Enters Study as 5th, Hillary Clinton Drops to 6th”
“Clinton See First Lady Most as Presidential Material”
“Laura Bush, Pat Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman Could Have Done More in Office”
“Eleanor & FDR Top Power Couple”
“Mary Drags Lincolns Down in the Rankings”
There are several aspects of this survey that could be examined to demonstrate its presentism. At this time, we will limit our analysis to just two – one that shows the morally superior aspect of presentism that Professor Hunt mentions in her essay and another that shows the ways that modern popular culture may have affected the deliberations of the 242 scholars who participated in the survey.
In the survey results, there is a definite bias in favor of women who took on a stronger and more equal partnership role in their husbands’ presidencies. Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama are certainly prime examples of such partners. The converse of that praise is the assessment that Laura Bush, Pat Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman “could have done more in office.” Even if you ignore the apparent bias shown when the women praised were all Democrats and all but one of those chastised were Republicans, the presentism of the assessments are hard to miss. Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman were well regarded in their roles as First Ladies when their husbands were in office and did not take active roles in policy or make public pronouncements on issues. For this they are dismissed from the highest rankings of the survey. Both of these women were raised in late 19th century Midwestern homes and reflected the beliefs and attitudes of their times. Eleanor Roosevelt, who is most highly praised by this survey, came from a privileged background and a well-known family (she was Theodore Roosevelt’s niece). She was expected from an early age to have a public presence. In addition, she had the advantage of being married to a man who greatly preferred to have her traveling the world as his “eyes and ears” than to having her nearby keeping tabs on his daily activities. As a side note, it is interesting that in such criticism the views of older stages of Feminism can be seen as opposed to newer feminists who acknowledge the different roles that women play in their lives and the value that they have towards the appreciation of the value of women.
The second and final aspect that we will examine is the way that popular culture has affected how certain First Ladies have been ranked in the current and previous surveys. The women that we will discuss are Mary Lincoln and Nancy Reagan. In the headlines for the survey, it is noted that “Mary Drags Lincolns Down in the Rankings.” The fact that Mary Lincoln has repeatedly scored quite poorly in the past surveys should not come as a surprise. The public perception of Mary was unfavorable during her lifetime and has only worsened since her death. The fact that she was ranked in the bottom five in their first four surveys (42nd in 1982, 37th in 1993, 36th in 2003 and 36th in 2008) is not remarkable.[ii] The thing that is remarkable is that in the most recent survey, Mary Lincoln is now only the 10th worst First Lady. Is it possible that the scholars were swayed by Sally Field’s “sympathetic” portrayal of Mrs. Lincoln in the recent movie Lincoln (2012)? Don Levy, director of the Siena Research Institute, said as much in a February 15, 2014 interview with the Christian Science Monitor when the poll was released. (www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2014/0215/America-s-best-first-lady-Eleanor-Roosevelt-tops-the-list-again) A similar situation can be seen in the ratings of Nancy Reagan – a woman who was not well liked by many during her time as First Lady. When the first survey results were released in 1982, Mrs. Reagan was just above Ida McKinley (a woman, by the way, who had virtually no public role due to her debilitating epilepsy) in 39th place. Since that time Nancy has steadily climbed up the rankings until she is now listed at 15th. It seems quite likely that her distance from the spotlight has helped sap some of the venom that was expressed in earlier surveys.
In the end, any survey which looks to determine what was the “best” or the “worst” is really just an exercise in opinion. If you put together a different panel with different backgrounds you will end up with different results. Regardless of the results, such surveys can be useful because they draw attention to our history even if only in the slightest of ways. Perhaps they will spark debates and perhaps not. This specific survey might cause more people to examine the lives of those we have called “First Lady.” This History Rhymer sees nothing wrong with that; however, it is up to all of us to make sure that we see the biases that come from any opinions and take them into account when looking at the events of the past. We are all victims of our perceptions. We just need to know that about ourselves and try to see beyond them. As Isaac Asimov once noted, “your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
[i] The survey ranked First Ladies on their value to country, integrity, leadership, White House steward, own woman, accomplishments, courage, public image & value to President.
[ii] In the 1982 survey, seven additional women were included, but have not been included since. Six of these women were the niece, sister or daughter of the President who was either unmarried or widowed. The seventh was the wife of William Henry Harrison who died one month into his term. For this reason, Mary Lincoln went from 42nd place in 1982 to 37th place in 1993 while remaining in last place.
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