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The Look-It-Up Book of First Ladies    by Sydelle Kramer order for
Look-It-Up Book of First Ladies
by Sydelle Kramer
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2001 (2001)
Hardcover, Softcover
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Sydelle Kramer's Look-It-Up Book of First Ladies profiles each First Lady, their influence on the history of the United States, and how they affected the shaping of a nation. From Martha Dandridge Custis Washington to the present-day Laura Welch Bush, Kramer outlines the accomplishments of each First Lady as well as her endurance of public criticism. In her Introduction, she tells us that 'Every woman in this book has cut a path through American history. It's safe to say things wouldn't have been quite the same without them.'

The title of First Lady was initially applied to Dolley Madison in 1849, eventually gaining a permanent place in our vocabulary. Some First Ladies took a stand for women's rights, some were opposed to equality of women, while others avoided expressing public opinions on issues. Their diverse backgrounds range from poverty to wealth, with differing degrees of education. Lady Bird Johnson graduated from high school at the age of fifteen and went on to earn a journalism degree from the University of Texas. Surprisingly many would have preferred that their husbands not pursue a political life. And we learn that First Ladies who were sickly and/or died during their tenure in the White House were replaced by a female relative to act as hostess for the president.

Each First Lady defined her role to fit the times, from entertaining and taking charge of the homestead, to stands on immigrants rights, environmental issues, and literacy. One commonality amongst First Ladies has been the desire to keep their home life private. It was interesting to learn that Martha Washington was one of the richest women in Virginia, and a widow with four children, when she met George Washington. Mrs. Washington was involved in the Revolution, and contributed her time in caring for injured soldiers. After the war, she took a stand for veteran's rights. Often referred to as 'Her Majesty' or 'Mrs. President', Abigail Smith Adams said, 'I will never consent to have our sex considered 'inferior'.'

Abigail is ranked by historians as 'one of the greatest First Ladies', along with Lady Bird Johnson, and Eleanor Roosevelt (the latter is rated the 'greatest first lady ever'). Dolley Madison is noted for saving the originals of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence from burning in the White House during the War of 1812. Dolley was loved by citizens for hosting parties which brought different classes and political beliefs together. Julia Tyler started the tradition of 'Hail to the Chief' being played at presidential appearances. Abigail Fillmore is noted for establishing the first public library in Sempronius, NY, while Helen Taft was responsible for the planting of 3,000 Japanese cherry trees, which still exist today in Washington, marking the annual Cherry Blossoms Festival.

What I particularly appreciated in Kramer's book is the introduction to little known First Ladies of years past, including New Hampshire's Jane Means Appleton Pierce, Vermont's Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge, and Ohio's Anna Tuthill Symmes Harrison. The book is illustrated with black and white engravings, sketches, paintings and photographs of the First Ladies, their families, relevant locations and events. I highly recommend The Look-It-Up Book of First Ladies as a stepping-stone reference book to lead younger readers to search out more information on presidential wives who most strike their interest and curiosity.

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