Culture Clash

Who’s the greatest actress of all time?  Or, the greatest super model?  And, what exactly does it mean to be “The Greatest of All Time?”  (G.O.A.T.)

Wiles is asking the question because we think your answers tell us something important – about ourselves, about our history and in many ways, about our values.  Penned by resident cultural curator Marc Alexander, each month, CULTURE CLASH will raise the question and pose head-to-head clashes of some of our culture’s greatest icons, and we want you to JOIN THE CONVERSATION. First up – First Ladies.  Let’s spark some healthy debate, shall we?



By Marc Alexander


Who is the greatest First Lady of all time? Some would say the greatest is the one you don’t remember, the one who brought no notice or scandal to the White House. In that case Mrs. Harrison, Van Buren, Mrs. Hoover, or Mrs. Harding, (Who? Exactly!) would be ideal candidates.

Or maybe it’s the “greatest” is the one we remember best, like Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy – with her pillbox hats and keen fashion sense.  But she was only First Lady for two and a half years. That’s not nearly enough time to make an impact, so let’s lay down some ground rules: I think the G.O.A.T must have had her heels firmly planted in the position for at least eight years, so, in that case, only two First Ladies stand out head and hairstyle above the rest. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Both of these First Ladies entered the White House as already accomplished Americans, and they simply used their role as First Wife of the nation to gain a greater advantage. Interestingly, neither woman was known for her fashion sense or for being stylish – which seems to be the yardstick for First Ladies, both in the past and present. As a matter of fact, they were both derided for being frumpy and fashion unconscious. But their style, or better yet their un-style, is the point. Both women employed substance as their style.


Mrs. Roosevelt lost both parents before she was a teenager and spent her pre-adult life devoid of affection. Yet something inside her led her to voluntarily work in the slums on the East Side of New York City; and she made it a point to take her soon-to-be president husband to meet the underprivileged and the oppressed. Mrs. Clinton, while of a different generation, had an early interest in politics and exhibited a passion for promoting social justice – especially among minorities.

As First Ladies, both women came to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave with power. Eleanor not only embraced being a First Lady, she expanded the role to new impactful proportions. While she pushed the president’s New Deal program, she also used her position to promote her heartfelt humanitarian and women-centered causes. She championed Black people and was vociferous in her support of Marian Anderson singing at Constitution Hall as well the appointment of Mary Mcleod Bethune to the head of the Division of Negro Affairs.


Hillary, a powerful lawyer in Arkansas had to somewhat downplay her ambition and took a political career demotion to become First Lady. She entered the White House as almost a full-fledged cabinet member in the Clinton Administration and, for the first time in history, a First Lady commanded an office in the White House’s West Wing. Hillary made policy and weighed in on most nominees made by the Clinton Administration to the chagrin of many.

What each of these examples taught us is that the First Lady doesn’t have to be the President’s arm-charm.  Neither of these women ever gave a thought to fading into the First Lady background, and they moved into their position with a “to do” list as long as their husbands’.

Where the separation occurs between the two in that Eleanor was a force as a First Lady in a time when only twenty five percent of women worked. At a time when it was considered scandalous for women to wear pants, Mrs. Roosevelt was travel around the country alone and raising awareness for social causes. Eleanor Roosevelt ventured where no women and few men went during World War II and traipsed into the jungles of the Pacific to visit wounded servicemen. Where Hillary had a political agenda, Eleanor had a human agenda, and she argued against the internment of the Japanese during the conflict and supported more opportunities for women and Blacks to significantly participate in the war effort.

While Hillary became the first First Lady to be subpoenaed for her alleged role in the Whitewater scandal, Eleanor used magazines, newspapers, and press conferences to encourage American women to broaden their horizons and to think of themselves as more than housekeepers and homemakers.

Towards the end of her life Mrs. Roosevelt made this statement about being First Lady:

“I could not at any age be content to take my place in a corner by the fireside and simply look on.”

Eleanor Roosevelt was like a First Lady version of Madonna: she constantly reinvented herself to better affect the world.  And that’s what made Eleanor Roosevelt the Greatest First Lady of All Time.

Agree?  Disagree?  Make your argument – I dare you.


Marc Alexander is a Los Angeles-based writer, photographer and purveyor of urban culture.

Leave A Comment