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  • Debra Scala Giokas

Remembering the First Ladies

National First Ladies Day, to be celebrated on April 27 this year, honors all First Ladies of the United States, to commemorate when Martha Washington became Lady Washington on April 30, 1789.

For the past two years, I have been speaking at an array of venues including libraries, museums and historical associations about our first ladies, as seen through the eyes of needlework. When I wrote my book, Ladies First: Common Threads, I intended it for middle graders. To my surprise it became more popular with adults who felt they needed and wanted to learn more about our nation's first ladies. About the position of first lady, someone recently said at one of my talks, "This was a job none of them asked for." And she was right.

Each of our nation's first ladies stepped into an unpaid position and created and shaped a role for herself and our country. When I ask which first ladies people know the most about, the popular answer is Eleanor Roosevelt. But only a handful knew that whenever Eleanor Roosevelt was sitting, she was knitting. After my talk, they are in awe of the accomplishments of these women. They wonder why we were not taught about them.

I continue to be in awe of the places I have visited and the people I have met. This truly has been and continues to be a wonderful journey for me. Recently I presented a Hutton House Lecture at the Roosevelt School on the grounds of Long Island University in Brookville, Long Island. The Roosevelt School is a replica of the White House. I addressed the audience in the Press Room, and that's me in the Oval Office. This is a wonderful place to visit for anyone interested in American history and a love for political memorabilia.

Another highlight was a recent talk to the Oyster Bay Historical Society which was held at St. John's Episcopal Historical Church in Oakdale, Long Island. This landmark is circa 1765, and is known as Charlotte Church.

I also spoke to the Great South Bay Quilters who have been working on a first ladies quilt all year. They make a block for first ladies they selected. Before each pattern, there is a summary about the first lady. I saw blocks for Dolley Madison, Frances Cleveland, Lucy Hayes and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Recently I received a letter from Hilary Clinton because I sent her my book. She wrote that like me, she "wished more were widely known about the first ladies lives, interests and contributions to our country."

On that note and to celebrate National First Ladies Day, I am going to share some resources with you so that you can embark on your own journey of learning more about the accomplishments of these women who left their mark on our country's history.

Check out East Wing Magazine, which is the first journalistic-driven publication dedicated to covering presidential first ladies present and past. I had the honor of being featured in one of their issues.

Another fabulous resource is the First Ladies National Historic Site which consists of two properties in Canton, Ohio: the home of First Lady Ida Saxton-McKinley and the Education Center. I recommend you check out the First Ladies Library and Museum.

To learn more about a particular first lady, consider visiting a historic home. The best place to learn about Martha Washington is Mount Vernon. For Edith Roosevelt, Sagamore Hill. For Eleanor Roosevelt, visit Val-Kill Cottage.

The mission of FLARE is to create and sustain a network to promote and publicize research and education about the contributions, lives, impact, and lasting legacy of U.S. First Ladies.

Another wonderful way to learn about the first ladies is to read biographies and autobiographies. Personally, I am a fan of the autobiography. There is nothing like listening to a first lady tell her story in her own voice. Here are some of my favorites (auto and bio):

You Learn By Living, Eleanor Roosevelt

Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt

Abigail Adams, Woody Holton

Grace Coolidge, An Autobiograhy

My Memoir, Edith Bolling Wilson

Untold Power, Rebecca Boggs Roberts

Jackie's Girl, Kathy McKeon

First Lady From Plains, Rosalynn Carter

Barbara Bush, A Memoir, Barbara Bush

Where The Light Enters, Dr. Jill Biden

The Light We Carry, Michelle Obama

I would be remiss if I did not mention the White House Historical Association which was founded by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961. This private, nonprofit organization's mission to protect, preserve, and provide public access to the rich history of the Executive Mansion. If you become a member, you can attend their virtual bi-weekly History Happy Hour.

On the note of happy, I must mention a fellow first lady fan, Sarah Morgan and her "Cooking with the First Ladies" project. She teaches you about the first ladies while cooking their favorite dishes. She has cooked her way through all of the first ladies. A must see, especially if you are a foodie. You can follow her on Instagram @cookingwiththefirstladies.

As for me, I hope you will visit my site often, and if you would like me to speak at an upcoming event virtually or in-person, please contact me at My most recent virtual talk was to the Claverack Free Library in the Hudson Valley area. My next in-person talk will be at Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton on Saturday, May 18 at 11:00 am.

Thank you for remembering the first ladies!

Oh, visit here if you're interested in getting a copy of my book, Ladies, First: Common Threads.

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