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FIRST LADIES HAVE COME A LONG WAY SINCE MARTHA AIMED TO BE `QUIET’

SHARE FIRST LADIES HAVE COME A LONG WAY SINCE MARTHA AIMED TO BE `QUIET’

First ladies have come a long way between Martha Washington - content to be "a quiet wife, a quiet soul," - and Hillary Rodham Clinton, appointed by her husband to head a national health-care task force.

They've even come a long way in modern times, since Eleanor Roosevelt dispensed advice to the nation via a column entitled "My Day," and served after Franklin D. Roosevelt's death as an American representative to the United Nations.Although presidential wives since the 1960s have been activists to one degree or another, none has had so much official responsibility assigned to her as Hillary Clinton received Monday.

Richard Nixon sought at New Year's in 1974 to appoint Pat Nixon as the temporary chairwoman of a 25-member National Voluntary Service Advisory Council, a position that paid a consultant fee of $138 for each day worked. Among its oversight duties was the Peace Corps.

Two days later, the White House announced that the law prohibited the president from appointing his wife to a paid government position, and her name was withdrawn. Hillary Clinton will work without pay.

The most notable role of a first lady to date was that of Edith Galt Wilson, who married widower Woodrow Wilson in 1915 and took over many of his duties in the White House in 1919 when he suffered a major stroke. The public did not know it, but she was, in fact, acting as president.

For most presidents' wives, however, their activities during their White House years can be described as causes.

The most recent, Barbara Bush, made literacy her pet project, and she liked nothing better than reading to children. She raised money for programs that teach adults to read and turned over $1 million in royalties from "Millie's Book," which she wrote, to a family foundation.

Nancy Reagan was active in combatting drugs, exhorting children to "Just Say No" to drugs.

Of all the recent presidential wives, Rosalynn Carter was the most like Hillary Clinton. She showed up in her East Wing office dressed in a suit and had a chief of staff whose salary equaled that of the president's top aide.

Carter made her his official envoy to Latin American countries, six months into his presidency, and she espoused their ideas about human rights. Carl Sferrazza Anthony, in his 1991 book "First Ladies" said "few presidential couples had blended so splendidly as equal halves of the whole, intellectually and spiritually."

So close was the partnership that Rosalynn Carter promised on the campaign trail that her husband would appoint a Presidential Commission on Mental Health. "And then," she recalled, "I went home and told Jimmy."

Betty Ford, who had long held Eleanor Roosevelt as her role model, became one herself for the nation when she had a mastectomy after cancer was found in her right breast and she allowed release of the details to the public. The result was to encourage more women have examinations and seek treatment, doubtlessly saving lives.

Pat Nixon represented the United States at presidential inaugurations in Brazil and Venezuela, but her tenure as first lady was quiet and reclusive. She did not relish the role of a politician's wife and when asked if she wanted daughter Tricia to marry one, replied "I would feel sorry for her if she did."

What is remembered most about Mrs. Nixon is her courage in standing by her husband, when he was jeered in public over the war in Vietnam and during his two-year siege of Watergate.

Lady Bird Johnson took on nothing less than the beautification of America, just as her predecessor, Jacqueline Kennedy made over the rather dowdy White House.

Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman hated the spotlight and set for themselves the roles of wife and mother.