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‘The First Lady’ reframes U.S. leadership through the eyes of the women behind the scenes at the White House

In a scene from Showtime’s new series “The First Lady,” Michelle Pfeiffer’s Betty Ford tells “60 Minutes” about her unlikely jump from Michigan homemaker to the woman behind the most powerful man in the United States in 1975.

“Washington can be an awfully tough town for a political wife, would you agree?” Boris McGiver, as Morley Safer, asked.

“Well I agree, but I had, you see, 26 years’ experience as the wife of a congressman,” Betty begins, referring to her husband, President Gerald Ford. “But I think a congressional wife has to be a special kind of woman.”

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It is exactly these “special kind” of women, which also include first ladies Michelle Obama (Viola Davis) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson), that the anthology TV series centers on in its attempt to reframe some of the most important female figures in White House history.

The first lady has “no position description, no statutory obligations and nothing codified in Congress,” said Anita McBride, the director of the First Ladies Initiative at the School of Public Affairs at American University. “But each woman feels a responsibility to use their experience, their background and adapt it to the role.”

Those individual experiences and characteristics are what make these women so fascinating to researchers, the general public and the media, said Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University.

“People just love to hear about first ladies because each individual first lady makes the role her own,” Jellison said. “If you just think about the last six years, you go from a Michelle Obama to a Melania Trump to a Jill Biden — such different women with such different life experiences and such different ways they played out the role of first lady.

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