Whistlestop Campaign: Lady Bird Johnson aboard the Lady Bird Special. [LBJ Library photo by Frank Muto. #FM5-10]

Whistlestop Campaign: Lady Bird Johnson aboard the Lady Bird Special. [LBJ Library photo by Frank Muto. #FM5-10]

What’s the Point of a First Lady?

Oct 06, 2014

By Scarlet Neath
published in The Atlantic

Fifty years ago today, Lady Bird Johnson set off on a four day, 47-town solo whistle-stop tour to campaign on behalf of her husband in the South. It had been less than a year since John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas and less than three months since Lyndon Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act, and it was thought to be too dangerous for the president himself to make the trip. Nationally syndicated columnist Max Freedman wondered, "Perhaps this marks the emergence of women as central figures in a national contest instead of being on the edges of a campaign."

It was the first time a first lady had gone on a campaign trail without her husband. Lady Bird spoke to half a million people, and Lyndon ended up carrying most of the South in November. And it’s now obvious that Freedman was right—Johnson was the first modern first lady. Today, however, the role of the presidential spouse today is in need of another reboot.

Lady Bird Johnson was well suited to modernizing the role of the first lady. By 1934, she had earned two back-to-back honors degrees from the University of Texas, when male enrollment outnumbered female four to one. She bought a small media company with a $17,000 inheritance and managed it independently throughout the course of her marriage. By the time her husband became president, it was worth $9 million. She helped finance his first campaign for Congress and managed his House office for eight months while he was serving in World War II. read more