A Reference Resource
Mamie Eisenhower never earned a paycheck for working outside the home, but she had a full-time job for most of her life. “Ike was my career,” she declared. She embraced her role as military wife and devoted much of her energy to helping her husband by making their many residences feel like home. In 1953, she took on a new responsibility for which she was fully prepared -- First Lady of the United States. She defined that role in a way that reflected her own preferences and priorities as well as a good deal of contemporary thinking about gender roles in the 1950s.
White House Partners
“Ike runs the country, I turn the lamb chops,” Mamie often said about their division of labor in the White House. Mamie actually did little of the cooking -- the White House had many servants who handled those chores -- but she quickly took charge of that staff, making clear how she wanted things to work in the living quarters of the White House. She was an effective manager who made sure that there was a clear separation between home and office in the White House and that the President had ample time for relaxation. She saw that there was a room set aside for her husband, an amateur artist, to escape to his easel and paintbrush. In their family quarters, the Eisenhowers spent many evenings like other couples in the 1950s, eating dinner on snack trays while watching popular television programs such as I Love Lucy.
Mamie said that she had no interest in politics and was not involved in governing the country. She pointed out that she visited the Oval Office only four times during the eight years of her husband’s presidency, and each time she was invited. She often kept reporters at arm’s length. She held her first -- and only -- press conference just a few weeks after becoming First Lady. She declined an invitation to write a regular column about her activities for the New York Herald Tribune. She insisted that she and the President talked about many things but not the decisions he made in the Oval Office.
Yet there was more to the Eisenhowers’ relationship than what the public knew. The President called Mamie “my invaluable, my indispensable, but publicly inarticulate lifelong partner.” Those words are revealing, as they suggest that conversations in the family rooms of the White House went beyond news about the grandchildren or plans for vacation. Eisenhower learned to trust his wife’s judgment, to value her assessment of character, and to appreciate that he could confide in her as he could no one else.
Although Mamie avoided public comment on political matters, she did have her own opinions on many issues. She disliked Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and his methods of bullying witnesses who appeared before his committee. She made sure that McCarthy’s name did not appear on invitation lists for White House social events. Although she never considered herself a feminist, she did campaign for Ellen Harris, a Republican who sought a seat in Congress from a district in Mamie’s home city of Denver. “I hope you’ll all vote for her,” Mrs. Eisenhower told female gatherings. “We women have to have a voice in things.” She also accepted an honorary membership in the National Council of Negro Women. And when she revived the White House Easter Egg Roll, which had not taken place since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, she made sure that for the first time African American children could also join in the fun. Mrs. Eisenhower considered these actions nonpolitical, but in a country divided by racial segregation, they carried symbolic significance.
Pretty in Pink
Mamie Eisenhower loved being the nation’s hostess. She enjoyed social occasions, and she devoted much care and effort to planning menus, choosing entertainment, and making everybody feel welcome. She was always an elegant hostess and frequently made lists of the best-dressed women in the world. Sometimes she wore designer fashions, but she also delighted in finding a bargain in a department store. Her bangs and off-the-shoulder dresses helped define a personal style. But what truly set her apart was her favorite color, and she even had a shade of it named for her. During the 1950s, many women, like the First Lady, wore fashions and accessories in “Mamie Pink.”
Many Americans who never made a White House guest list experienced Mamie Eisenhower’s graciousness. She insisted that everybody who wrote to her should get some sort of personal reply. Mamie usually got 700 letters each month, so providing an answer to all those correspondents was an enormous task. She relied on fifteen staff members to help her, but her letters had her own touch. People around the country thrilled at getting a reply from the First Lady with her signature.
Mamie Eisenhower often turned her bedroom into her office. She avoided exertion and often slept late because of a heart condition that had its origins in a childhood case of rheumatic fever. She also suffered from asthma and Ménière’s disease, which upset her balance. But after she awoke in her pink and green bedroom, she did much of her work in nightgown and housecoat, while giving orders, according to one staff member, “as if it were she who had been a five-star general.”
From the Heart
When the President suffered a heart attack in September 1955, Mamie played an important role in his recovery. She stayed in the hospital for nineteen days, providing comfort and reassurance at a time when the public wondered whether the President would get well. She made clear that she had not taken over any of the President’s responsibilities, as had Edith Wilson when President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919. She was only helping her husband get better so he could resume a full schedule. She worked hard during his convalescence and signed replies to the 11,000 people who wrote to wish her and the President well.
She continued to care for her husband when he suffered from additional health problems. Eisenhower underwent abdominal surgery because of an attack of ileitis less than a year after his heart attack. In November 1957, he had a stroke. Although he recovered fully from both the stroke and the surgery, Mamie continued to monitor her husband’s schedule, making sure that the President got sufficient rest and enough exercise. At times, even Eisenhower did not know all that his wife had done: During the campaign of 1960, Mamie told Pat Nixon that she was afraid that a last-minute campaign swing might strain the President’s health. Eisenhower never understood why Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, did not ask him to campaign during the final days before the election.
Mamie Eisenhower lived an extraordinary life, yet she was like millions of American women who gave first priority to home and family. Prevailing expectations in the 1950s were that married women would concentrate on their roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers. Mrs. Eisenhower did just that. She was the nation’s most prominent hostess, she made sure that the White House was a comfortable home, and her “career” was Ike. She was very much a First Lady of the 1950s.