The “American Presidency” displays convey upon entrance enormous complexity and niche interests. It stands resolute, reverently lit by soft yellow lighting that reveals artifacts from every American age, beginning with the candelabra George Washington himself used to write letters and mandates during his presidency, to a cast of Abraham Lincoln’s hands, swollen from work, to many other accomplishment-related relics from the modern age.
Each artifact in the President’s Wing possessed a plaque which told of the achievements each man brought about independently. The candelabra from George Washington’s home is the one he used to light the room as he labored away nightly, bringing about enormous change and founding our country. Similarly, Lincoln’s hands showed those of a hard worker, without mention of any sort of dependence upon other people. Both a candelabra and strong hands are very masculine allusions – a candelabra being slightly phallic in nature, to begin. George Washington is the father of our country, as it is often told to children, and this one symbol brings insight to that rhetorically, for it was by the light of this candelabra that Washington worked tirelessly to create this country. The procreative nature of a phallus correlates to this masculine trait as well as an independent one.
As for the casts of Lincoln’s hands, the second most notable display in my opinion, they too were masculine, and even though the inscription below offered an explanation for why they were gripping a broom handle (being unstable from shaking so many hands in one day), they appeared strong. Without the plaque beneath them betraying their true nature, I would never have guessed any sort of weakness about them. They appeared strong and rough, like a skilled, steady tradesman’s hands. This rhetorically conveyed that Lincoln was a master at his craft, a hard worker, with an unyielding grip and capability to accomplish a workman’s tasks. This relayed a president who toiled unstintingly for his country; his strength a dominant figure as the man of the House (literally).
When one ventures into the First Ladies’ Gallery, however, all presents subordinately and femininely. Obviously, their dresses and fanciful gala dresses all portray dolls dressed up for show; in addition, the fine china adds to this “dollhouse effect” along with setting a very domestic focus upon First Ladies. It rhetorically conveys (via pathos – putting the audience in the intended frame of mind) a lesser function of the women, who always played their part to assist their husband, and to be on display, never their own character or claiming their independent accomplishments. The wing focused on jewelry, floorplans/furniture and artwork in the White House during their respective eras as well – once again placing the women in the household, away from outside accomplishments and separate from the nation-wide effects for which their husbands are credited. For instance, the displays did not at all mention Nancy Reagan’s initiatives with the youth of America and schooling programs such as BEST, but blandly displayed a body-specific mannequin with her inaugural ball dress and pantsuit, which erased much of her accomplishments from the argument of the wing.
I focused on this museum and these two wings because I believe they rhetorically argued that even though we like to believe that sexism is a past failure, it still exist today and furthermore that this is the sort of role separation the public wants to see. Otherwise, people would have stopped coming to see the museum and the wings would have been reevaluated. It states that clearly the first ladies’ roles were to support and subject to their husbands, while being “role models” for the women of the country (as the plaques said, women copied their fashions, hairstyles, and interests since the time of Dolly Madison) to similarly serve their husbands to the best of their ability. This contrasts with the Presidents’ section, which focused mainly and generally on their artifacts (not dress or dining china) that helped them themselves carve out the country independently (a trait America obsesses over and reveres), capably, and unwaveringly to the point of dominance.
Visitors view these rhetorical symbols daily without reflection as to what this might be telling young girls of the country. This enlarged my perspective because before I never would have noticed the clear difference in role reinforcement of subordinate women and their dominant husbands. It made me question what would occur if this election ushered in its first woman president. This interpretation was a new and interesting perspective to take, and indeed a bit disturbing.