‘Secret Weapons’: Keuka College Contributes to Groundbreaking First Ladies Book

Students in Dr. Christopher Leahy’s history class provided pre-publication input on a first-of-its-kind college textbook.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

In the spring of 2022, Anita B. McBride, former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, visited Keuka College to share her perspective on U.S. first ladies.

That fall, Keuka College students returned the favor.
For the first time this academic year, there’s a college textbook devoted exclusively to U.S. first ladies – and College students helped get it into classrooms.
U.S. First Ladies: Making History and Leaving Legacies,” is a 340-page work that examines the influence of first ladies on American society, politics, diplomacy, public policy, and life inside the White House.

It was co-authored by McBride, director of the First Ladies Initiative at American University, along with Dr. Diana B. Carlin and Nancy Kegan Smith. Prior to publication, it was sampled by students of Keuka College Professor of History Dr. Christopher Leahy.
“Anita asked me if I would be willing to ‘test’ a portion of the First Ladies book in my class,” said Dr. Leahy. “I agreed to make a customized version of the book part of my U.S. History to 1877 course.”
The publisher provided a specially designed version of the book that covered first ladies from 1789 to 1865. Dr. Leahy’s students spent a week dissecting the arguments of the book and assessing how effective the presentation was. 
“I found that my students loved the book,” said Dr. Leahy, himself the author of a highly regarded biography of U.S. President John Tyler. “They told me they had never learned about any of what was covered in the book.”
One of those students was HannahElise Morett, a fourth-year American Sign Language-English Interpreting major with a strong interest in politics. She was surprised by the relatively low profiles, compared to today, that 19th-century first ladies generally maintained.
“The book definitely had an impact on me of understanding how women were important, but not seen,” said the Long Island native. “It was almost like they were the secret weapons.”
McBride, whose May 2022 lecture at the College focused on the history and influence of U.S. first ladies, has been working to bring those secrets into the open. While some presidential spouses have enjoyed renown throughout history, for every Eleanor Roosevelt, whose influence and achievements are well documented, there’s a lesser known though no less influential figure like abolitionist Lucy Hayes or racial justice advocate Helen “Nellie” Taft.

“There’s not a shortage of books (on the) First Ladies,” McBride told the Alexandria Times in December. “There are many biographies. This is different in the sense of putting these women in the context of the time that they were in the role, and how society may have dictated women’s roles at the time.”
The book, which kicks off with a foreword by current first lady Dr. Jill Biden, includes a shoutout to its Keuka College connection on the Acknowledgements page: “We especially want to thank the students in Christopher Leahy’s class at Keuka College and Matthew Costello’s class at American University for testing several chapters of the book.”
As one of those students, HannahElise, believes additional works along the lines of “U.S. First Ladies” are needed.
“I think there should be more published,” she said. “I think more research should be done on this – on women in general who have made an impact.”