Frances Cleveland was an avid knitter and led the national organization, The Needlework Guild, as its president for nearly twenty years. When her son, Richard, defended Whitaker Chambers in court, Frances sat in the visitors’ section and knit during the trial. Ida McKinley, who tragically lost both of her children before they reached adulthood, spent hours knitting booties and children’s clothing items to be given to her friends’ children. Edith Roosevelt, a close friend of Frances’s, was also a member of the Guild, but she was not quite as ambitious as her predecessor. Edith was only president of her local chapter. Florence Harding, as a senator’s wife, joined with the army of knitters who made socks, pajamas, and caps for the soldiers fighting in World War I. Grace Coolidge was an avid knitter, and even contributed patterns to women’s magazines. Lou Henry Hoover, likewise, was a dedicated knitter. She created a complex pattern for a baby blanket that was double-knitted on each side. Eleanor Roosevelt was frequently photographed with her knitting on her lap. In most cases, these women knit not for themselves, but to create gifts and or to donate work to charity. (The mission of the Needlework Guild was to create one new garment each year and then provide it to other organizations, such as the American Red Cross, when the need arose.) We haven’t seen any recent first ladies with knitting in their laps, which is surprising, considering its renewed popularity. And it’s not just an “old lady’s” pursuit. Many young women have found joy in getting together to knit and talk. Perhaps knitting will eventually make a comeback at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and revive what once was a tradition among our presidential spouses.
Since Hillary Clinton is looking for a fresh start – a start characterized by the words “small” and “humble” – I suggest she change her first lady role model. Not that there is anything wrong with admiring Eleanor Roosevelt, who is still one of the most admired women in America. But there is another first lady, one who was once admired for her leadership, who appeared on the cover of Time magazine even before her first lady years, and who set the precedent for first ladies getting coverage in Vogue magazine, who merits a closer look by Hillary. And this first lady’s personality and outlook embody the very traits of ‘small’ and ‘humble’ that Hillary Clinton would like to project.
Before I name my suggested new icon, let me add a few more details about the character of my recommendation. She was not a Democrat, which, of course, would easily explain why Hillary would not initially want to look at her more closely. She was fiercely Republican, and proud of it. She was so modest, that she refused to manipulate the press to call attention to her many accomplishments. Yet, this first lady was bold without being brash; complex, but straight-forward; endearing while still being authoritative. She was the first woman to get a degree in Geology from Stanford University. She translated an important mining treatise from the Latin, for which she was awarded a gold medal. She built a network before the phrase was even something to be defined in the dictionary.
When World War I broke out, she was immediately on the scene, offering support from her personal finances and lending her managerial expertise to organize stranded Americans, keep them fed, and help them find a way home. As the war dragged on, her organizational and philanthropic efforts helped wounded British soldiers and kept Belgians from starving.
In the United States, she took the floundering Girl Scouts and turned it into a successful organization that promoted the values which Hillary Clinton embodies: Independence; Self-Assurance; Confidence. This same first lady also opened the door for women to compete in sports at a collegiate level – another measure of her commitment to women’s rights and equal opportunities.
So, who is this paragon that Hillary would do well to emulate? She is Lou Henry Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt’s immediate predecessor. Eleanor’s many prodigious accomplishments have cast a long shadow over Lou’s, and unfairly so. Lou deserves her time in the sun. Hillary wants this to be the time she basks in the sunlight, too. To make that happen, I suggest she study up on Lou.