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'The First Lady' reframes U.S. leadership through the eyes of the women behind the scenes at the White House

The Showtime series focuses on three U.S. first ladies: Michelle Obama (Viola Davis), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson).
Image:  Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in "The First Lady."
Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in "The First Lady."Ramona Rosales / Showtime

In a scene from Showtime’s new series “The First Lady,” Michelle Pfeiffer’s Betty Ford tells “60 Minutes” about her unlikely jump from Michigan homemaker to the woman behind the most powerful man in the U.S. in 1975.

“Washington can be an awfully tough town for a political wife, would you agree?” Boris McGiver, as Morley Safer, asked.

“Well I agree, but I had, you see, 26 years' experience as the wife of a congressman,” Betty begins, referring to her husband, President Gerald Ford. “But I think a congressional wife has to be a special kind of woman.”

It is exactly these “special kind” of women, which also include first ladies Michelle Obama (Viola Davis) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson), that the anthology TV series centers on in its attempt to reframe some of the most important female figures in White House history.

Image: Dakota Fanning as Susan Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Aaron Eckhart as Jerry Ford in "The First Lady."
Dakota Fanning as Susan Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Aaron Eckhart as Gerald Ford in "The First Lady." Murray Close / Showtime

The first lady has “no position description, no statutory obligations and nothing codified in Congress,” said Anita McBride, the director of the First Ladies Initiative at the School of Public Affairs at American University. “But each woman feels a responsibility to use their experience, their background and adapt it to the role.”

Those individual experiences and characteristics are what make these women so fascinating to researchers, the general public and the media, said Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University.

“People just love to hear about first ladies because each individual first lady makes the role her own,” Jellison said. “If you just think about the last six years, you go from a Michelle Obama to a Melania Trump to a Jill Biden — such different women with such different life experiences and such different ways they played out the role of first lady.

“It sparks the public’s imagination,” she said.

The women behind ‘The First Lady’

The show, which debuts on Sunday, jumps among three different timelines (1933-45, 1974-77 and 2009-17) to tell the stories of three first ladies.

According to experts, it was no surprise that these women were chosen as the center of the series — considering their significant contributions to U.S. history both in and out of the White House.

"Eleanor Roosevelt is really in a category by herself, in that she was first lady much longer than anyone else for 12 years because the Constitution has since been amended," Jellison said.

Image: Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in "The First Lady."
Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in "The First Lady."Boris Martin / Showtime

But aside from her long tenure, Eleanor Roosevelt was a woman who was devoted to civil rights, a frequent traveler who would go to cities in place of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was paralyzed by polio, and a person committed to public service and human rights for almost two decades, even after she left the White House.

"And of course, she was first lady during two major crises of the 20th century: the Great Depression and World War II," Jellison said.

Betty Ford, on the other hand, came into the White House when the women's rights movement was gaining traction, McBride said.

"She spoke her mind on issues that were not necessarily in line with the presidency or the administration," she said, citing her advocacy for breast cancer, equal rights and abortion at a time when those issues were — and continue to be — controversial.

Jellison credits Betty Ford as "our first television first lady" who was able to communicate with the American people on tough topics.

"Betty Ford went on television and spoke from her heart, not from a script, not from a teleprompter, and that really connected people to her as a real-life wife, mother and 1970s woman," Jellison said.

"She gave an image of the first lady who was so relatable to other middle-aged women in the U.S. and who shared many of the same experiences they were going through."

And last, Michelle Obama, who, with her husband, Barack Obama, have a place in the history books as the first Black first lady and president of the U.S.

Most notably, Michelle Obama came into the White House during the "first social media presidency," McBride said.

"She used it extremely well and it helped her ... to connect with people around the country, particularly African Americans like herself because she knew their story," she said.

On the flip side, Michelle Obama also dealt with her husband's political detractors who criticized her in racist and misogynistic ways — but she always rose above it, according to Jellison.

"One of her most famous quotes is 'When they go low, we go high.' And that's really how she conducted herself as first lady, and that's how she continues to conduct herself now," Jellison said.

During her tenure, Michelle Obama also brought two young children into the White House, while Betty Ford's and Eleanor Roosevelt's children were grown, and tackled such issues as childhood obesity by emphasizing children's health and nutrition, Jellison said.

Image: Story Walker as Young Malia Obama, Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Jordyn McIntosh as Young Sasha Obama and Evan Parke as Agent Allen in "The First Lady."
Story Walker as young Malia Obama, Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Jordyn McIntosh as young Sasha Obama and Evan Parke as Agent Allen in "The First Lady."Jackson Lee Davis / Showtime

'Good television'

Aside from their position, the three first ladies featured in the series all shared "dramatic experiences, which makes for good television," Jellison said.

"They have to balance entertainment with the facts," said McBride, who expressed concern about how accurately the show would portray these extraordinary women.

But regardless, both first lady experts said they were excited that these women's lives were being exposed to a broader audience — and believed the show would inspire people to learn more about other first ladies.

"It's important to talk about these women, their lives, what they brought to the position, how the country moved forward or didn't, and really evaluate them as human beings," McBride said.

"What people forget is that they have private lives, they have families, they have sorrows, they have joys, they face everything we face on a regular basis, but the difference is they have to do it on a national public stage — and that's tough."

McBride and Jellison both added that they looked forward to the day the U.S. has a first gentleman.

In one of the final scenes of the premiere episode, Pfeiffer's Betty Ford is told that her only job in the administration is to be a first lady.

"That's not a job," she says in response. "That's my circumstance."