Florence Harding

Florence Harding

Florence Kling Harding admitted that she had "only one real hobby -- my husband." To this end, she assisted President Warren G. Harding in all his endeavors, from the newspaper business to the United States Senate, and finally to the presidency of the United States. She was her husband's political adviser, boasting, "I know what's best for the President, I put him in the White House." Indeed, President Harding acknowledged his wife's influence, commenting that she was often "too busy directing the affairs of government" and was "full fledged in expressing her opinion as to how the Executive should perform his duties."Florence Harding was a woman of contradictions. While pushing her husband's presidential ambitions, she lamented his nomination as the Republican candidate, knowing that his limited intellectual capabilities, his laziness, and his fondness for liquor were problems for a would-be President. In talking with reporters, she emphasized her traditional skills as a cook and housekeeper, just as she touted her refusal to wear a wedding ring and insisted that she be addressed as Florence Kling Harding -- maiden name included. Florence was quite active throughout Warren's campaign, greeting guests and encouraging women to become politically active.

As First Lady, Florence was a significant political force in her husband's administration. She was instrumental in appointing certain high-level cabinet appointments and was Harding's final arbiter on his speeches. It was Florence who convinced the President to reconsider legislative proposals that would have limited future Presidents to only one six-year term and involved the United States in the League of Nations. The First Lady regularly attended cabinet meetings and urged her husband to appoint women to positions in the administration.

Though she fashioned herself a presidential adviser, Florence embraced the hostessing duties of First Lady and revived a number of traditions suspended during the Wilson years. She brought back the Easter Egg Roll and the weekly Marine Band concerts, and reopened the house to tourists -- sometimes guiding the tours herself. She also established new precedents her successors would follow: being available for "photo-ops," holding informal press conferences before public events, making impromptu public speeches, and being guarded by a Secret Service agent. She brought jazz to the White House, took a spin in a "hydro-aeroplane," loved "motion-pictures," and wore the shorter skirts fashionable in the 1920s.

She was an avowed feminist and focused attention on women's activities and achievements. As First Lady, Florence hosted the first all-women's tennis tournament at the White House and welcomed noted French chemist Marie Curie. To foster girls' physical activity, she promoted both the Campfire Girls and the Girl Scouts. The first woman to vote for her husband in a presidential election, Florence Kling Harding urged other women to exercise the franchise and was a member of the League of Women Voters and the National Women's Party, as well as other organizations promoting the rights and equality of women. But her special interest was the welfare of wounded veterans. She held numerous White House garden parties in honor of former soldiers, became the unofficial director of the Veterans' Bureau, and spent countless hours at Walter Reed hospital visiting with the infirm.

The First Lady herself ended up in the hospital in 1922, suffering from a kidney ailment that threatened her life. Breaking with tradition, neither the she nor the White House attempted to hide her illness or the severity of it. During this time, Florence asked second lady Grace Coolidge to assume her public appearances, despite a growing rivalry with the popular vice president's wife. Following her recovery, Florence Kling Harding faced the emergence of scandals involving members of her husband's cabinet. As the "Ohio Gang" came under increasing scrutiny, the First Lady was forced to deal with the betrayal of high-ranking cabinet members she had considered friends, as well as with the sudden death of her husband. Committed to her "hobby" until the last, Florence burned hundreds of the President's papers, letters, and documents that she felt could be "misconstrued." Although well liked as First Lady, Florence Kling Harding entered her post-White House years realizing that the scandals surrounding the Harding administration -- and her reaction to them -- cast a shadow not only over her husband's presidency, but over her own tenure as First Lady.