Grace Coolidge

Grace Coolidge

The 1920s were the era of the "New Woman," when women challenged old-fashioned norms governing their behavior, appearance, and cultural roles. Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge was herself receptive to many of these changes, setting fashion trends and striking a sporty profile. But First Ladies still did not typically make speeches or express political opinions, and President Calvin Coolidge preferred his wife to hew to a more traditional role. He did not wish to see her wearing slacks, bobbing her hair, or driving a car, and he discouraged her from speaking to the press. Despite these limitations, Grace Coolidge became a celebrity in her own right and one of the most vivacious, popular, and visible First Ladies of her time.

Grace Coolidge endeared herself to the American people by heartily embracing cultural trends that had become popular during the 1920s. Notwithstanding her husband's proscriptions about her style of dress, Grace Coolidge departed from the usual conservative garb of public figures, shortening her skirts and wearing more loose-fitting clothing. The First Lady was also a sports enthusiast. She hiked or walked every day and particularly loved baseball, having taught the game to her young sons in Northampton while her husband's political career kept him busy or took him across the state to Boston. As First Lady, she attended the home games of the Washington Nationals and enjoyed a front row seat at the 1925 World Series. And as Hollywood mesmerized the American public with its moving pictures, movie buff Grace Coolidge invited screen actors such as Tom Mix, John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Al Jolson to the White House. She also entertained aviator Charles Lindbergh, who had captivated the world in 1927 with his transatlantic flight.

The First Lady's fashions, love of sports, and her associations with the stars of the stage, screen, and air were not lost on the public. Although she never spoke to reporters or journalists, the press loved Grace Coolidge and regularly featured her in their stories. Photos of the First Lady planting a tree, receiving a gift, or attending a ceremony appeared regularly in the many mass-circulation magazines that began to inundate the public in the 1920s. As the journals featured Grace Coolidge, they also drew attention to her public activities outside the White House, and the American public grew to expect that the First Lady would--and should--mingle with the people. As a result, future First Ladies would no longer be able to conduct their social duties from a White House receiving line.

Grace Coolidge was aware of the power her position afforded. At one point during her tenure, she wrote, "Daily I am impressed anew with the responsibility and opportunity which has been given me. In no sense does it overwhelm me, rather does it inspire me and increase my energy and I am so filled with the desire to measure up." Measure up she did, by using her publicity to draw attention to issues she considered important. Having taught at the Clarke School for the Deaf prior to her marriage, she used her position to promote education of the deaf and to draw attention to the needs of the disabled. Although she never gave speeches on this issue or on others important to her--issues such as women's voting and education, child welfare, and health care--her visible support of these matters brought them national attention.

Grace Coolidge also used her popularity to secure a historical legacy for the White House. She directed yet another renovation of the presidential mansion and met with curators to achieve a more authentic style for the historical building. She worked to secure historic pieces and original furnishings that had been removed from the mansion over time, including Abraham Lincoln's bed. She also urged Congress to pass a measure that would allow the White House to accept donations of period furnishings. She had a sunroom built over the south portico, expanded the White House gardens, and constructed a pond.

Like her husband, Grace Coolidge was popular with the American people. Unlike him, she attracted through her vivacious presence the favor of many columnists who were hostile to his politics. But she too began to show the wear of the constant strain of a public life, especially after the death of their 16-year-old son, Calvin Jr., in 1924. Her grief, the unrelenting press, endless social duties, and a painful sinus condition all compounded the stress. Although Grace Coolidge maintained a poised exterior, the role of First Lady became demanding and limiting. Later in her life, she would comment on these constraints and her tenure as a presidential wife: "When I reflect upon my Washington career I wonder how I ever faced it....There was a sense of detachment. This was I, and yet not I--this was the wife of the President and she took precedence over me; my personal likes and dislikes must be subordinated to the consideration of those things which were required of her." Even the aloof and distant Calvin Coolidge recognized the difficult job his wife had assumed. "The public little understands the very exacting duties she must perform," he said, "and the restrictive life she must lead." 

Despite the restrictions and responsibilities, Grace Coolidge endeared herself to Americans with her love of pop culture and her courage during a great personal trial. Although President Coolidge had muted her political voice, Grace Coolidge nevertheless maintained a political presence in her quiet support of issues important to her and in her attendance at budget meetings and Senate hearings. Balancing her husband's coldness and detachment with her own warmth and affability, Grace Coolidge's tenure as First Lady offered an accessibility and a human side to the Coolidge administration and expanded the public duties of future First Ladies.