First Ladies: An Interdisciplinary Roundtable

Endorsed by SHFG and WASM

Friday, March 31, 2023, 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM

Type: Roundtable Discussion

Tags: Museums; Politics; Women's History


The position of First Lady has evolved into a prominent figure on the national and world stage. A director of social affairs, presidential liaison, symbol of strength, policy advocate, political reformer, keeper of “the People's House,” partner, and confidant, First Ladies have taken on numerous roles throughout American history. Each First Lady has contributed to the larger American history in their own way, often serving heightened roles in times of crisis. The panel will take the form of a roundtable featuring five participants and a chair addressing the historical significance of the office of First Lady of the United States.

Session Participants

Chair: Katherine A.S. Sibley, Saint Joseph’s University
Katherine A.S. Sibley is Professor of History and director of American Studies at Saint Joseph’s University. She is the author of four books, most recently First Lady Florence Harding: Behind the Tragedy and Controversy (2009) and Red Spies in America: Stolen Secrets and the Dawn of the Cold War (2004). In 2021, she edited Southern First Ladies: Culture and Place in White House History, and was as well the editor of the groundbreaking A Companion to First Ladies and A Companion to Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. She serves on the editorial board of American Communist History and is member-at-large of the Board of FLARE; for many years she served on the Historical Advisory Committee to the U.S. State Department.

Panelist: Thomas J. Balcerski, Eastern Connecticut State University
Dr. Thomas J. Balcerski is the Ray Allen Billington Visiting Professor in United States History at Occidental College and the Huntington Library for academic year 2022-2023. A scholar of early American history, he is an Associate Professor of History at Eastern Connecticut State University. He holds a Ph.D. in History from Cornell University. His research interests include U.S. Presidents, First Ladies, and American political history. Dr. Balcerski was featured on the C-SPAN series, “Lectures in History,” for his work on antebellum political culture. His book, Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King (Oxford University Press, 2019) explores the personal and political relationship of those two nineteenth-century Democrats. His new project explores the history of the Democratic Party, America’s oldest partisan institution.

Panelist: Lisa M. Burns, Quinnipiac University
Dr. Lisa M. Burns is Professor of Media Studies at Quinnipiac University. She holds a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Maryland at College Park. Her recent work includes the co-authored book chapter, “Political Branding in a Digital Age: The Role of Design and Image-Based Messaging Strategies in the 2020 Presidential Election,” published in The 2020 Presidential Campaign: A Communication Perspective. Her edited collection “Media Relations and the Modern First Lady: From Jacqueline Kennedy to Melania Trump” was released in 2020. Her previous book, First Ladies and the Fourth Estate: Press Framing of Presidential Wives, came out in 2008. She has also published several journal articles and book chapters on various topics related to her research interests, which include media history, political communication (particularly media coverage of presidents and political spouses), collective memory, and media criticism.

Panelist: Diana B. Carlin, Saint Louis University
Diana B. Carlin is Professor Emerita of Communication and the former Associate Provost for Graduate and Global Education at Saint Louis University. She has previously served as Dean of the Graduate School and International Programs at the University of Kansas. Carlin has authored several scholarly articles and has co-authored several books, including her most recent Gender and the American Presidency: Nine Presidential Women and the Barriers They Faced. The author of numerous chapters on the lives of First Ladies, she is currently working on a textbook on First Ladies with Nancy Kegan Smith and Anita McBride. In addition to her work on First Ladies, she is also a scholar of presidential debates and women in politics. She is currently the treasurer of the First Ladies Association for Research and Education (FLARE).

Panelist: Michelle Gullion, First Ladies National Library

Panelist: Ira G. Pemstein, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum
Ira G. Pemstein is the Supervisory Archivist at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California. In that capacity, he is responsible for preserving, reviewing, and cataloging over 65 million pages of documents that cover the Reagan presidency, his time as Governor of California, his career in Hollywood, and his post-presidency. In addition, the archival staff led by Pemstein preserve and review over 2.5 million photographs, audiocassettes, and film reels. A graduate from the master’s program in library information studies from California State University Northridge, Pemstein has worked at the prestigious Getty Research and the Nixon Presidential Library, and he has advised the Obama Foundation on its preparations for the Obama Presidential Library.