Men and women have always been treated unequally in our country’s history and the “American Presidency” and “First Ladies” exhibits at the National Museum of American History expresses these differences, but also the changing role of women and men, in and out of the White House. We first explored the “First Ladies” exhibit and what stood out the most was that there was very little mention of the policies themselves. It emphasized the role of the First Lady as a housekeeper, and a beautiful face for foreign dignitaries. It also focused on their fashion, and as the inaugural ball as one of the most important nights for a First Lady. It was always in a positive light though; it focused on how First Ladies set fashion trends and reached out to people who were afraid or too weak to reach the president. The exhibit was very open, but included questions that made visitors question the deeper meanings behind the exhibits. Questions like “what will happen when the President is a woman” or “how has the role of women changed over history,” make the visitor question what they are seeing. On the surface, the exhibit seems to be fairly sexist, but accurately portrays what a First Lady actually did and expresses the power than these women fought for. A First Lady now is an important part of policy shaping, and extremely powerful in championing causes that a President cannot. Michelle Obama is a perfect example with her push to fund and reform school lunches. She has made it so lunches are healthier for low income kids, and educates people on what a healthy meal is.
For contrast, the “American Presidency” exhibit was regal, with faux marble columns, and it explicitly stated the roles of the presidency throughout the ages. The roles of the presidency were explicitly stated with a case dedicated to each with the best examples of each placed inside. This included state functions (commander in chief), and also diplomatic and social functions (head of state, national leader). This explicit statement drives home the power of the presidency and maybe the expectations each president must live up to. A First Lady may have much more flexibility to her power as she has very few set limitations or expectations. A First Lady can choose to be politically and socially active, while a president must be politically and socially active. The floor plan of the exhibit mimicked this idea. The “First Ladies” exhibit was very open with no set movement from one portion to the next. Each visitor was free to roam, and read each question separately. The “American presidency” exhibit had more structure to it. It brought you in and forced their view that this was how a president should act upon the visitor.
The final major difference was in the substance of the exhibits. The “First Ladies” exhibit had neither speeches nor quotes and the only difference between each lady was the dress they used to represent her. Each president had more to their exhibits and the exhibit even introduced some of their characters with personal clothes and pets. This functions to humanize the presidents more, and almost dehumanize the ladies to think more objectively about their role in the country.