First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents (a book review)

First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the PresidentsFirst Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents by Bonnie Angelo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fave quote so far:
“Without the gift of time and elbow grease provided by the unpaid, hardworking “just a wife” woman, the Girl Scouts, the YWCA, the local Red Cross-every social and cultural organization in a small city- could not have functioned; fund-raising church bazaars and school festivals could not have been organized. Put down by the cynics as “do-gooders,” which is precisely what they were, in the best sense, these women were a special outwardly mobile American breed who did much to raise the level of their family’s aspirations and powered noblesse oblige into action in middle-class America” p. 254 (Dorothy Ford)

I really enjoyed this book. I wanted to save some more quotes but the book was due back at the library today. It was a fascinating look at the backstories of our modern presidents starting with FDR. It was interesting how many similar story lines wove throughout the lives of our presidents and their mothers. I found myself thinking often of my own parenting style and comparing it with those of the president’s mothers. One of the things that most impressed me, especially with the mothers of the earlier presidents, is how seriously they took the role of mother. Nowadays it feels like there is much lip service paid to the idea that mothering is noble and is a challenging “career” worth pursuing. However, the intensive mothering of the early 21st century looks very different from the early 20th century. I read very little about extravagantly themed parties, delicious and nutritious meals served three times a day, orchestrated playdates, and tightly scheduled activities. Instead, I read of mothers who valued education, pushed their sons to pursue music, and instilled in them the values they held dear. From the very wealthy Kennedy’s and Bush’s to the more middle class (and sometimes downright poor) Reagan’s and Johnson’s, there was a sense among all the mothers that the very best thing they could do for their children was to pass along their faith, their sense of family, and their moral values. One of the stories that I loved was about Jimmy Carter’s mom – that she not only allowed, but encouraged, Jimmy to be friends with the little black children in their neighborhood, inviting them to play inside their home, sharing meals with them in their kitchen, altogether treating them like the perfectly normal human beings that they were – but certainly not how they were treated anywhere else in that town.

I was also very impressed with Ida Eisenhower – she was a strict pacifist whose son was enamored with the military and ended up becoming one of our country’s most successful wartime generals. She was still able to be proud of her son and support him in his pursuits even with such a potentially divisive issue between them. I loved reading about their continued friendly supportive relationship.

In the last pages of the book, the author tries to string together some conclusions about the similarities and differences between all the mothers. I think this quote sums it up well: “If those president’s mothers had done nothing more than give their sons the underpinning of confidence, it was an accomplishment, for all around them were mothers whose sons did not shine, boys who did not reach beyond mediocrity, young men whose lives were not inspiring tales of success, much less the stuff of history.”

Also this – a quote from another book, which looks very interesting also (Mothers and Sons by Carole Klein) – “An intelligent mother with strong opinions stirs more than her son’s intellect. She stimulates both his curiosity and his energy so that he will one day be an opinion-shaper himself.”

The author found a strong correlation between a strong father-daughter relationship and the strong mother-son relationship. Since I don’t have any sons, and there haven’t been any female president’s yet- I wonder how this opposite-sex parent relationship will play out in future presidents. Will a female president have a strong relationship with her father? Will he have had a strong relationship with his mother? After having read this book, I am curious and will be paying attention to future presidents and their family life. I highly recommend this thought-provoking book!

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