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Senator Obama: Remember the (First) Ladies

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Reports indicate that, in light of recent attacks by Senator Clinton, Senator Obama and his supporters are about to sharpen their critique. If so, there is one line of attack which I urge them to drop for it flies in the face of what historians tell us as well as Clinton's record as first lady.

"She wasn't treasury secretary in the Clinton administration," Obama has pointed out in the past to make his point that being first lady does not count as political experience. Continuing to deny Hillary Clinton's role in her husband's presidency will not sit well with many women, especially older women, who understand only too well the essential and often unacknowledged roles many women have played in their husband's careers.

When it comes to the presidency, starting with John Adams, wives have to varying degrees played significant political roles in their husband's administrations. As long as it was unthinkable to have a woman president (and for some it is still unthinkable), the closest a woman could get to the presidency was being first lady.

First ladies were often as intelligent, knowledgeable, and shrewd as their president husbands, and so it is not surprising that from Abigail Adams to Hillary Clinton some have played important roles in their husband's presidencies.

According to historian Joseph Ellis, author of Founding Fathers, Abigail Adams' "political instincts... rivaled Madison's legendary skills..."

When her husband John was elected president, Abigail who was not even allowed to vote (her well known 1776 plea that the gentlemen "remember the ladies" when drafting the Declaration of Independence had been laughed off) was home earning the family's living by tending their Massachusetts farm. President Adams wrote to her: "I never wanted your advice and assistance more in my life....The times are critical and dangerous and I must have you here to assist me... You must leave the farm to the mercy of the winds. I can do nothing without you." Ellis tells us: "With her at his side, he [President Adams] had no real need for a cabinet."

When Adams contemplated sending a delegation to France to negotiate a treaty to avert war with other great European powers, Ellis writes, "Abigail endorsed the initiative. Again the idea might have originated with her, though the communication with the Adams marriage was so seamless and overlapping that primacy is impossible to fix."

President Woodrow Wilson was known to consult often with his wife Edith on political issues. When he suffered a stroke and was unable to speak or move, Mrs. Wilson forbade doctors to make public the seriousness of his condition.

She demanded that documents be delivered to her; that she would give them to the president. She did apparently discuss the papers with her husband, but it is not at all clear that was he able to comprehend them. Instead, Mrs. Wilson consulted with her husband's most trusted advisors, but she made the decisions and signed the papers for her husband. President Wilson's opponents in Congress and the press complained that the United States had become a "petticoat government" run by an "acting ruler."

When it comes to Eleanor Roosevelt, there are few who would dispute the essential role she played in her husband's administration, especially with respect to the New Deal. According to historian Blanche Wiesen Cook author of a three volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, "The best of the New Deal was because of Eleanor Roosevelt's activities." She always said: "Government exists for one purpose: to make things better for all people." In the 1920's, Cook tells us, Eleanor was the leading woman politician in the Democratic Party. In the 1930's, she brought the vision of the 1880s social-reform feminists such as Florence Kelly, Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, directly into the White House.

I have highlighted a few of the best known cases; numerous other first ladies undoubtedly played important roles as their husbands' advisors.

So when Bill Clinton boasted that in electing him, the country would be getting two for the price of one, he was for the first time giving official voice to a tradition that has been around since the first days of our nation.

Can there be any serious doubt that Clinton was involved in policy issues for most of her husband's eight years in office? Her key role in developing a health care plan is well known, and while the plan turned out to be highly unsuccessful and led to a period of political withdrawal on her part, biographers note that it played a major role in facilitating her future effectiveness. She moved away from her uncompromising and arrogant rigidity captured by her early assertion that, "Bill and I didn't come to Washington to play the game as usual," and learned how to build consensus and pass legislation.

On the international level, her representation of the United States at the United Nations World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen; her five-nation trip to South Asia to improve relations in particular with India and Pakistan; her moving and forceful speech on democratic and universal ideals of human freedom at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing -- she was Honorary Chairwoman of the U.S. delegation -- turned her into a figure of enormous respect and influence around the world.

In Clinton's case, her role in government started even earlier. For example, after the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that public education was inequitably funded and therefore unconstitutional, she took a leave from her work at the Rose Law Firm, became chairwoman of the governor's Education Standards Committee, and succeeded in introducing significant reforms. Biographer Carl Bernstein commenting on these reforms, states that "her substantive legacy in Arkansas was real."

There is enough to criticize in Hillary Clinton without demonstrating what might be perceived as both a lack of historical awareness and lack of sensitivity to many women's life experiences. Senator Obama, please don't go there.