First Mothers Review Part I

I read First Mothers, The Women who Shaped the Presidents by Bonne Angelo in 2002, enjoyed it tremendously and recommended it to many friends over the years, including my book club, who selected it for our September 2015 meeting. Over the next two post I will share some of my notes from the book discussion I lead. Look for part II of my review next week.

The original edition profiles the presidents and their mothers from FDR to Bill Clinton, with added information on the first ladies too. I learned a lot about the president and their mothers, including the idea that these 11 presidents had much in common when it came to their relationship with their mothers – something I never would have guessed.

As the time I first read the book, my kids were 7 and 12 and I was inspired by some of the parenting concepts. For instance I took these two quotes to heart:

“They were diverse women who led [mostly] conventional lives, exercised their keen intelligence and didn’t shrink from controversial opinions—which they dispensed without hesitation to their political sons. As a group (with the exception of Sara Roosevelt) they were concerned about social issues, troubled by racial inequities and other injustices.” (Page 425)


“An intelligent mother with strong opinions stirs more than her son’s intellect. She stimulates both his curiosity and his energy so that he will one day be an opinion-shaper himself.” (page 425, quoting Carole Klein, author of the study Mothers and Sons.)

No one will accuse me of being a shrinking violet or holding back my opinion on issues that matter to me! Both of my kids were raised to see the value in social justice, for speaking out on issues and values that matter to them.

First Mothers

In this week’s post I will share 2 of the 5 commonalities that I found most interesting from the book.

1) Each presidents’ mother had particularly strong relationships with their fathers. Most were each their father’s favorites. In an interview the author, Bonnie Angelo, gave in February 2001 she said:

In every case of these mothers, there was a special bond between this particular daughter and her father….they made these girl feels that they could go beyond the constraints placed on 19th century women to do more, to be more. The fathers made the girls more independent minded, more self-assured. And I am convinced that these traits were then passed directly to the son who would become president. Father to daughter to son.”

This self-confidence, given from father to daughter to son is “fundamental to achieving success in any career, whatever the choice. Personalities may be unlike, motivations may differ, but the one who makes it to the top, the achiever, first believes in himself.” (page 427)

From the same interview:

I wrote only about the modern presidents — FDR to Clinton — because the modern presidency really began then, when they had to go out and actively seek the office, which meant they had to have that self-assurance the mothers implanted in them. That is crucial to anyone running for president these days.” 

2) Each presidential mother dealt with various forms of adversity and they then passed their resiliency to their sons. Some of these mothers knew hard times. But even in the face of poverty, alcoholism and even domestic violence, these women rose above it and passed this ability onto their sons — something that many of the presidential fathers could not and did not do. 

From the same interview:

Rose Kennedy was the foremost example of a trait that these mothers shared: resilience in the face of hard time, of abusive and alcoholic husband, and the unbearable tragedy of the death of children. Rose lost not just the two we all suffered with her, Jack and Bobby, but her first born, Joe Jr., who was lost flying a dangerous mission over the English channel in World War II, and her golden daughter Kathleen was also killed in an air crash just after the war. And yet she never lost her faith or her ability to meet any challenge. Think also about Hannah Nixon, who lost two sons to tuberculosis, one when he was only seven, the other at 22.”

Virginia Kelley is quoted in the book, from her memoirs saying,

“Too many people seem to think life is the tablecloth, instead of the messy feast that’s spread out on it,” she stated in her memoirs. “They want to keep the cloth clean and tucked safely in a drawer. That’s not life. Done right, life leaves stains. That’s why I don’t judge Bill Blythe for the things I found out about him. That’s why I feel sorrow, not hatred, for Roger Clinton. That’s why I love my mother, even though many a day she made me feel like murdering her…. It’s called resilience.” (page 401)

Have you overcome difficulties in your life?

Come back next week for part II of my book review on First Mothers by Bonnie Angelo. (Click here for part II)

As a blogger, I enjoy sharing my ideas and thoughts with people, and I get a special thrill when someone leaves a comment. When you share my posts on social media sites, I jump up and down doing a happy dance. So thank you!

9 thoughts on “First Mothers Review Part I

  1. Kim Acedo

    Interesting! At the same time, not surprising, that is points #1 & 2 that you highlight. I’m looking forward to learning more in your posts to come! Thanks, Heidi 🙂

    1. Heidi BK Sloss Post author

      Thanks for the comment, of course I picked out what I resonate with, but these are both themes that the author spent time writing about. And I have to admit I could relate to both of these themes too–although the adversity we/I have had to deal with has been less economic and more health. Someday I will write about all the medical calamities we have had but I can’t figure out how to do it without sounding whiney.

  2. Mary Albitz

    Fascinating. Being a descendant of George Washington’s half brother, John, this makes me wonder if George’s mother was the same. My mother definitely is a poster child for #2, but missed out on #1 a little. I know she wanted much more of a relationship with her father but her mother thwarted it (by my mother’s accounts).

    1. Heidi BK Sloss Post author

      Interestingly George Washington did not fit the patterns (nor did many of the presidents pre FDR). She talked about this at length in the last chapter of the book. And she reiterated how FDR’s election was the first in many ways in which the modern campaign was a part of the election process. Pre FDR backroom deals were much more influential according to the author. In fact George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had terrible relationships with their mothers.

    1. Heidi BK Sloss Post author

      I agree about Obama’s mother, and from what I know he fits the pattern. Interesting to see about the next president. Trump does not fit the pattern at all and of course neither does Hillary. Jeb does not fit the pattern either (George Jr was his other’s favorite). I think Carson fits it, but who knows. Once the field gets smaller I plan on looking up their stories, although so little is ever written about nor credited to presidents’ and candidates’ mothers.

  3. Alicia

    Very interesting, looking forward to part 2. I was intrigued in reading the lessons handed down from the mothers to their sons which made me wonder about the day we finally have a woman president, or could/should a women even be president. A mother/daughter relationship is always so much more complicated. Would a mother have the same influence on a daughter?

    I’ve got this book on my “to-read” list and your post makes me look forward to it even more.

    1. Heidi BK Sloss Post author

      One of the author’s contentions is that in order to be elected president in this era (since FDR) a candidate needs a tremendous amount of confidence. I agree with her that having a strong relationship (stronger than the norm, whatever that is) with one’s mother is a requirement for the development of such strong self-confidence. So theoretically a woman with a VERY strong relationship with her mother would fit that criteria. It will be very interesting to see how it plays out for the 2016 election!

  4. Pingback: First Mothers Book Review Part II | The Art of Living Fully

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