At first glance, the mothers of America’s presidents—perhaps the ultimate moms group–seem to have very little in common. Their lifespans cross four centuries, from 1708 to today. Their levels of education varied, from illiteracy to a Ph.D. Some were born Americans; others immigrated from foreign countries.
But what struck Julie Downing, the illustrator of the children’s nonfiction book “First Mothers,” was not the differences between these 44 women, but the similarities among them.
“They had a really strong sense of wanting their children to do well and the importance of education,” says Downing, 58, who lives in San Francisco and has illustrated more than 40 children’s books. “Many of them basically taught their sons to read, and if they hadn’t done that, nobody would have.”
The book, which took four years to research and create with co-author Beverly Gherman, gave the two women a peek into the parenting styles and often overlooked lives of presidential mothers. “There are lots of books about presidents, the wives of presidents, and even presidents’ pets,” says Downing, who has a son and daughter. “But there is almost no information about ‘first mothers’ unless they had some notoriety. The majority of first mothers? Nobody thinks about them at all.”
Historical record suggests she is right. Despite these women’s prominent connection to American history, many of their biographical details are long forgotten. Elizabeth Jones Monroe, mothers of James, lived from 1730 to 1774; no one noted either the day she was born or the day she was died. And, despite extensive research, neither Downing nor Gherman was able to unearth even one image of Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson, the Irish-born mother of Andrew Jackson. The only find? A visual description that mentioned her red hair.
That’s too bad, because these presidential mothers are full of surprises, even for modern moms who think they know their American history. Long before Amy Chua accused American parents of being too indulgent in “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” the colonies had Mary Ball Washington, mother of future founding father George. “Mary Washington was the original Tiger Mom, because nothing was ever good enough for her,” says the cheerful Downing, who scattered the pages of the book with humorous sketches of an always indignant Mary. “What did she do to her hair?” Mary demands to know in the margins next to a colorful illustration of Virginia Clinton Kelley. “Maybe her fourth husband likes it,” offers an elegant Sara Delano Roosevelt.
The inspiration for the ongoing interaction between the first moms in the book came from Downing’s own experience. “As a mother, I thought of how much time I spent with other mothers—we offered advice to each other and yes, a little bit of gossip. This felt like a community of mothers, even though they were obviously not all in the same place at the same time.”
In many ways, the book by Downing and Gherman does the same, revealing just how universal the challenges of motherhood are, whatever the decade. For example, in 1913, Dorothy Gardner Ford took her young son Gerald and left her abusive husband. Similarly, navigating the special education bureaucracy may be a requirement for many 21st century parents, but the obstacles faced by a special-needs child would have been familiar to Jesse Woodrow Wilson. More than a century ago, she helped her son Thomas Woodrow Wilson overcome what was likely dyslexia. And, as the effects of the Great Recession linger, working mothers struggling to keep their families afloat would have found sympathy in Hannah Milhous Nixon. She baked 50 pies daily to supplement her husband’s meager income. “If it hadn’t been for her, I don’t think the family would have survived,” Downing says.
Such stories gave the illustrator a new appreciation for the ability of a mother to shape the character of a child. “Many of them did go beyond the social conventions, and they imparted that strength to their sons,” says Downing, who has two children herself. “With your own children, you sometimes think, ‘Oh, they were just born that way.’ But you really do have a lot of influence on your child.”
Just ask Mary Washington.
Alison Rice is a freelance writer in Arlington. She blogs at www.lisforlatte.com.