A Mother’s Day Tribute to the Mothers of Presidents

May 6, 2009

In her book,   First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents , Bonnie Angelo explores the relationship between Presidents and their mothers beginning with Sara Delano Roosevelt and concluding with Virginia Cassidy Clinton. (The paperback version includes a chapter on Barbara Bush.) The idea for this book came from years of covering Presidents for   Time magazine.   She was struck by the fact that they spoke often of their mothers but rarely of their fathers.

Of the self-assurance that is needed in a President today, Angelo says, “What was the well spring of that confidence, toughness, and resilience?   Here is my answer; eleven remarkable women, not stained-glass mothers but lively doers who funneled boundless energy into their sons, mixing praise and discipline in equal measure.  And through them put her stamp on American history.”

What are the common dynamics of these relationships?  Angelo found that mothers of exceptional sons tend to be independent thinkers, who are intelligent and do not shrink from controversial opinions. This stirs the son’s intellect and stimulates his curiosity and energy.  Unconditional love is the most important element in developing confidence in a child and a close emotional bond between mother and child creates a secure, comforting presence that fosters self-confidence and trust in others. 

Where do Mothers get their self-confidence?  It comes from their fathers. These ladies were “daddy’s girls.” They were favorites of their fathers.  Psychologists say there is a strong Father-Daughter-Son chain of development.  Angelo says of this connection, “With the father-given confidence and drive, if these women were their granddaughters, they would very likely be pursuing ambitions of their own today as well as managing a family.  As it was, each settled for the reflected glory of her son.”

  Examples of Courage and Self-Assurance

  Leslie Lynch King Ford fled an abusive husband in the darkness of night with her 16-day-old son wrapped in a blanket in her arms.

  Lillian Gordy Carter never went back to the local Baptist church after her first meeting with the church’s women’s group because they were enthusiastic about sending missionaries to Africa but were not interested in helping the black people in their community.

  Virginia Cassidy Clinton learned that her husband had been killed in an automobile accident when she was 6-months pregnant with the future president.

  Ida Stover Eisenhower was a pacifist and passed out anti-war pamphlets during World War II.

  Rebekah Baines Johnson forced her son to take violin and dancing lessons. (This was probably the hardest task of all.)

And then there is   Dr. Stanley Ann Dunham Obama Soetoro of whom her daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng, has said, "I wouldn’t have called her an atheist. She was an agnostic. She basically gave us all the good books — the   Bible, the   Hindu Upanishads and the   Buddhist scripture , the   Tao Te Ching, Sun Tzu — and wanted us to recognize that everyone has something beautiful to contribute. Jesus, she felt, was a wonderful example. But she felt that a lot of Christians behaved in un-Christian ways.”  Barack Obama refers to his mother as a secular humanist in   Dreams for My Father .  She was certainly a woman of the world who accepted everyone.  He was the center of her world. 

So, on this Mothers’ Day, let us pay tribute to these remarkable women who in a different day might have been presidents themselves. Let us also pay tribute to all of the mothers today such as Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton who balance careers, as well as families (as did Ann Dunham).  They are the granddaughters of the women who shaped the Presidents. 

Chelsea Clinton, Malia Obama and Sasha Obama have a double advantage.  Each has a mother who is a role model of the successful woman as well as a father-daughter relationship with a strong father. Only time will tell what they will accomplish in their lifetime. 
In   The Audacity of Hope , Barack Obama recounts, “And for an instant, in the glow of the late afternoon, I thought I saw my older daughter as the woman she would become, as if with each step she were growing taller, her shape filling out, her long legs carrying her into a life of her own.”