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  • Mikah Meyer

Shattering Glass Ceilings One Dress at a Time

Unit #16 / 412 - First Ladies National Historic Site

Is it sad that when I heard the title of this national park, my initial thought was:

"I bet there will be lots of dresses."

The reason I felt guilt for such a thought likely has to do with my three older, incredibly feminist sisters who trained me well while growing up (you do not want to know what happened the first time I used the word "bitch" in their presence).

But that's what we expect of First Ladies, right? They are there to be pretty, to smile and wave, and have "initiatives"--less political and less hard-hitting focuses that endear the public to their husbands.

That last part is what bothers me the most.

These women are remembered because they were attached to a man.

That's their claim to fame; they were married to someone powerful.

Now, I understand that women's roles in history have been less than equal and for many women, getting to be a First Lady was actually a huge leap for their life's possibilities. I also realize that many of these women played huge roles in their husband's administrations and had lasting impacts on both domestic and international culture--especially the advancement of women's rights.

But I just can't shake that dress image. Why do we remember these women by what they wore? How often to we see suits of Presidents lining glass cases? As if their main contribution to society was how their choice of color palette reflected America at the time.

It all felt so painfully patronizing.

I drove to First Ladies National Historic Site expecting to see myriad back stories on what made these 44 women tick. What their childhoods were like. What they struggled through in their young adult years. How they used their positions of privledge to engender change in America.

Instead I saw dresses.

And glasses cases of memorabilia about electing their husbands. And videos about how they campaigned for their husbands.

Who makes better cookies?

I get that this exhibit was about their roles as extensions of a President, and that other national parks, like Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park, Women's Rights National Historical Park, and Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument might better tell the story of women in America. I guess I just wanted to learn about these women apart from their husbands. To let their existence be the feature, and not the penis that gave them their notoriety or reason to wear these so preciously preserved dresses.

I don't want to be Debbie Downer though, and like I grew up hearing my father preach sermons each week filled with the Gospel--good news--I want to focus on a thought that entered my mind every time I saw something dripping with patriarchy.

"How cool is it that after centuries of women just being trophy spouses, one now has the chance to actually be the President? Maybe this is what history has been for women, but how soon that glass ceiling is about to be shattered....wait, will Bill's suit be in this exhibit one day?"

And it's actually sort of fitting that I had these thoughts here.

Though First "Ladies" National Historic Site ended up being mostly about one wife, prompting me to consider renaming it First "Lady" National Historic Site, it did tell the story of a house that played its own small part in advancing equality for women.

The main structure of this two-building park is the Ida Saxton McKinley Historic Home. Apart from being the house where America's 25th President, William McKinley, lived for 30 years, my tour guide pointed out that it was significant for its ownership.

Passed down not through the traditional male-only lineage that all other property took during the mid-1800s, this house was actually bequeathed to and owned by Ida's sister. A woman. During an era where women were expected to marry between age 16-18 and by comparison to today's standards didn't seem to have progressed very far beyond "baby factory."

I don't know if he also had three older sisters, but Ida's father, James Saxton, owned a bank in Canton, Ohio--where the house is located--and in a controversial move for 1865, hired his daughter to work as a teller. It was not questionable for reasons of nepotism, but because Ida was a woman and it was presumed women couldn't handle such tough work.

But that's the saving grace of this house and historic site. It's a strong reminder of how far we've come for gender equality, and also how far we have to go.

Maybe then one day schoolchildren and newscasters alike will talk about what suit the First Gentleman was wearing, and what laws Madam President just enacted.

First Ladies Highlights (You Can Do)

1. Take the Tour

This national park is completely experienced via the guide-led tour. $7 without an annual National Parks Pass, $5 with one, reservations are recommended ahead of time and available here.

My tour guide, Allie, featured in my Humans of National Parks series via Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)

(Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota)

-Isle Royale National Park

-Keweenaw National Historical Park

-Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

-River Raisin National Battlefield Park

-Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

-Grand Portage National Monument

-Mississippi National River & Recreation Area

-Pipestone National Monument

-Voyageurs National Park

-Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

-Theodore Roosevelt National Park

-Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

-Apostle Island National Lakeshore

-Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway


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