chapter  22
The Phenomenon of the Public Wife: An Exercise in Goffman's Impression Management
Pages 20

Fascination with wives of public men in America is a peculiar and enduring phenomenon. The cheering for Mrs. Washington when she arrived in Phila­ delphia too late for her husband's inaugural was reported to have exceeded that given the first President of the United States (Means, 1963). And "poor Mrs. Madison was almost pressed to death . . . everyone crowded round her, those behind pressing on those before, and peering over their shoulders to have a peep of her . . . " at the first inaugural ball (Hunt, 1906:61). 1

With the development of newspaper technology, 2 the public idolization of First Ladies (a term not employed until 1877) developed to the point of making a president's wife's inaugural ball gown a public icon. It was news when Rosalynn Carter donated her gown to the Smithsonian, an event greeted by the head of that organization with this remark: "This marvelous unbroken collection (of inau­ gural gowns of First Ladies) at the Smithsonian has become a popular symbol of the history of our country" (New York Times, July 21 , 1978, p. 11).