The Legacy of Florence Harding, a Most Modern First Lady


Katherine A. S. Sibley, chair of the history department at Saint Joseph's University, is the author of First Lady Florence Harding: Beyond the Tragedy and Controversy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009). 

This past spring, first lady Michelle Obama invited some Washington school children to join her in planting an organic kitchen garden on the White House grounds. While the war on obesity was her chief concern, more striking was the sight of the “common people” on this soil, which has been not only untilled, but also untrod by visitors for most of the past century, since Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt installed a fence back in 1937.

But Mrs. Obama was not the first First Lady to welcome Americans back to the People’s House after a period of little or no access. In 1921, Florence Kling Harding also opened the Mansion and its grounds following several years of closure. Her predecessor, Edith Wilson, had restricted the lawns to a flock of sheep as a wartime “morale boosting” measure (to show the White House was doing its part!).   The wool piled up, as did the droppings, and visitors were shooed away.  Florence, however, banished the beasts; she planted numerous flowers on the grounds and in the greenhouses, and shook hands with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of visiting crowds on many days of the week.  She and her husband were well-loved for this during their scant two and a half years in office; the Hardings became celebrities, regularly appearing in newsreels. They exploited these media opportunities as they hobnobbed with Hollywood personalities like singer, comedian and actor Al Jolson and actress Lillian Gish, just like the Obamas do today, with the likes of George Clooney and Reese Witherspoon.

Also much like Michelle Obama, who recently changed her chief of staff in order to more closely influence the White House message making and policy apparatus, Florence, too, was concerned with her image and her influence.  She made sure she was actively consulted on appointments and that her own interests were given close attention, including the protection of animals, the plight of World War veterans, and issues of racial injustice (leading to her intervention with the Attorney General to stop the execution of a young Alabaman for stealing $59.00, alas unsuccessfully).   

In her activism, Florence turned her highly traditional post in a new direction. As the first future president’s wife to vote for her husband, too, she was thrilled with women’s new political prominence, and did not hold back from engaging with and addressing partisan gatherings of these new voters.  Her own creative energies and skillful political strategizing, indeed, had enabled Warren G. Harding to take up the challenge of running for president; she had nurtured and cultivated this genial fellow’s ambitions since his days as a small-town Ohio newspaper publisher.  Despite his long-term affair with neighbor Carrie Phillips (the only affair for which this author has found convincing documentation), Warren knew he could never leave Florence; his future success was inextricably bound to her efforts. The affair, which ended during the 1920 campaign, had begun when Florence was first struck with a kidney ailment in 1905, leading to risky surgery and a long convalescence. 

The illness, nephritis, plagued her for the rest of her life, and in 1922, it struck her with particularly devastating force.   Notably, Florence wasted no time in telling the public about her condition, welcoming their prayers. Thousands of well-wishers sent up their petitions, and the First Lady returned to health, thanks to these entreaties and her own belief in the power of “mind over matter,” inspired by the French psychologist and adherent of autosuggestion, Émile Coué (1875-1926), whom she closely followed.  By contrast, Edith Wilson had kept her husband’s stroke-induced debilitation a secret in 1919 and 1920; likewise, no one had known how ill her predecessor, Ellen Wilson, was when she died in the White House in 1914 (probably not even Woodrow).

 Sufficiently recovered by the early summer of 1923, Mrs. Harding took the longest trip yet conducted by a first lady, joining the president on a “Voyage of Understanding” to Alaska (a coffin was packed for her, secretly, in case she didn’t live out the trip).  But it was Warren himself who died on this journey, of a heart attack in August, forcing her to take up the sad (and broiling hot) duty of accompanying his body back across the country, through throngs of trackside mourners and 10 days of funerals, in San Francisco, Washington, and Marion, Ohio.  She lived in the White House a week longer, sorting through their many possessions and papers (some of which she burned later).   The following year, her nephritis returned aggressively for the last time, and she died at her doctor’s sanitarium in Marion.  She was remembered warmly in obituaries.

This sentiment did not long outlast her. Her husband’s administration was already coming under attack for the corrupt practices of Attorney General Harry Daugherty and Interior Secretary Albert Fall (most famously at Teapot Dome, Wyoming), while Florence Harding’s reputation was soon colored by a special kind of denigration related to her gender and her age that continues to plague her place in history, where she remains near the bottom of First Ladies in the Siena College Poll.   One Harding biographer has impugned her as “sexless, with the brittle quality of an autumn leaf,” and another dismisses her as “a domineering woman.”  Francis Russell, the author of 1968’s The Shadow of Blooming Grove—the first book which used the long-closed Harding papers --went so far as to call Florence a “hermaphrodite” in a private letter.  Such portrayals have made it difficult to recognize this immensely popular, and effective, first lady. They do confirm, though, that her activism and influence were seen as an unacceptable transgression of gender roles.  Apparently, they still are for some, including the pseudonymous “Doctor Watson,” who was quick to write an error-laden review of my book on Amazon, unable to grant Florence her humanity eighty-five years after her death.

First ladies have long had to walk a fine line; if they are envisioned as too active, they alienate others, as Hillary Clinton found when she was deemed insufficiently interested in cookies and teas.  So far, Michelle Obama seems to be handling her delicate task well. Like Florence, she is visible both in and out of the White House, and has embraced popular interests like the nation’s health, drawing on her former work as a hospital administrator, but steering clear of associating with a health care task force, as Mrs. Clinton did. Like Mrs. Harding, Michelle Obama has also become a celebrity, gaining much interest in her clothes, exercise regimen and relationship with her family, echoing the position occupied by the most glamorous resident of the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy.   As Florence was, Mrs. Obama is also passionate about the causes she embraces. In June, she welcomed the elementary school children back to the garden they helped plant, to taste the fruits — actually peas and lettuce — of their labors at a Harvest Party.  On July 4th, she and her husband entertained military families, just as the Hardings had so often done for World War I vets. Florence would have loved these festivities, and the way in which they demonstrate a welcoming opening of the Pennsylvania Avenue grounds to Americans.

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Steven F. Sage - 8/31/2009

Germane to Professor Sibley's new book, Mrs. Harding fans should consult this hysterically funny fictional treatment of the topic: Robert Plunket, "My Search for Warren Harding" (NY: Harper, 1983).