The Real Story Behind ‘The First Lady’

The new anthology series focuses on the American presidency through the eyes of former first ladies Michelle Obama, Betty Ford, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The First Lady Viola Davis

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story of The First Lady, a Showtime series focused on three former first ladies of the United States: Michelle Obama, Betty Ford, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

A star-studded cast of performers is reframing the American presidency by focusing on three former first ladies of the United States. The First Lady, a new anthology series from Showtime, focuses on three women who held the title of FLOTUS: Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama. The show, which is described as a “revelatory reframing of American leadership through the lens of the first ladies,” will focus on the influence and achievements of these women’s political careers.

The cast includes Viola Davis as Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Ford, and Gillian Anderson as Roosevelt. Actors playing the former US presidents include O-T Fagbenle as Barack Obama, Aaron Eckhart as Gerald Ford, and Kiefer Sutherland as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Here is a look at some of the true stories and impact each of these first ladies had on the US and world.

Viola Davis as Michelle Obama

Of the three former first ladies featured in the docudrama series, viewers will be most familiar with Michelle Obama, who served in the role from 2009 to 2017. Afterward, she published her record-breaking memoir, Becoming, in 2018. According to Entertainment Weekly, Viola Davis read Obama’s memoir and feels “very protective of Michelle.” The actress added: “It’s our job as actors not to judge whoever we are portraying, but I ended up thinking she’s just dope.”

The Obamas entered the White House while still in their forties, making them one of the youngest couples ever to occupy the nation’s highest office. They brought with them two young daughters: Sasha (played by Saniyya Sidney) and Malia (played by Lexi Underwood). Many were skeptical of Michelle Obama’s foray into public policy. A New York Times headline from 2009 reads: “‘Mom in Chief’ Touches on Policy; Tongues Wag.” It’s a sexist sentiment, especially for a Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer.

Let’s Move!

While in the White House, Michelle Obama championed a number of signature programs. They include Let Girls Learn, an initiative aimed at helping adolescent girls receive a quality education around the world, and Joining Forces (co-launched with now First Lady Jill Biden), which assists the families of service members. She also spearheaded Reach Higher, an effort to expand post-high school education in various forms.

But the program that many know best is Let’s Move!, which Obama started at the beginning of her second year in the White House. By promoting better nutrition and more exercise, the initiative aimed to “help other busy parents in order to raise a healthier generation of kids and families.” The campaign led to a number of significant changes to the food you eat: updated nutrition labels, changes to school nutrition standards, and public-private partnerships to help increase access to healthy food.

A 2016 Vox article sums up the legacy of the program as such:

“Through her leadership, the Obama administration seized on a moment when America started paying attention to food, and made fighting obesity a top priority — both symbolically and legislatively.”

Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford

When Betty Ford’s husband, Gerald, assumed the US presidency in August 1974, he made history by becoming the first man to serve in the nation’s highest office without receiving a single vote. He was appointed vice president after then-VP Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace. Then he landed the top job after then-President Richard Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Fewer than three years later, he was defeated by then-Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.

Yet despite her short time in the White House, Betty Ford made a sizeable impact on the country, making her one of the most influential first ladies in history. Or as her New York Times obituary put it: “Few first ladies have been as popular as Betty Ford, and it was her frankness and lack of pretense that made her so.” Though married to a conservative Republican, Ford espoused a liberalness that earned the respect of many. As another New York Times report put it:

“She was a product and a symbol of the cultural and political times — doing the Bump along the corridors of the White House, donning a mood ring, chatting on her CB radio with the handle First Mama — a housewife who argued passionately for equal rights for women, a mother of four who mused about drugs, abortion and premarital sex aloud and without regret.”

But it was her openness about another issue that would leave an impact. A legacy, the New York Times notes, that may be stronger and more lasting than her husband’s.

Destigmatizing Breast Cancer

Months after her husband took the oath of office, a friend encouraged Betty Ford to undergo a screening for breast cancer. According to Cancer Todaythe doctor found a “marble-sized lump in her right breast.” Days later, she underwent a “radical mastectomy, removing her entire breast as well as her pectoral muscles and the lymph nodes under her right arm.”

In the days after the surgery, Ford needed to recover and was faced with a dilemma. Surely, the press would notice an unexplained absence of the new FLOTUS. Ford could have downplayed the illness or ignored the story altogether. Or, she could have gone public with the story. And that’s exactly what she did. Ford not only shared news of the procedure, but she invited the media into the hospital to interview and photograph her. According to Professor Tasha Dubriwny, via Cancer Today:

“In obituaries prior to the 1950s and 1960s, women who died from breast cancer were often listed as dying from ‘a prolonged disease’ or ‘a woman’s disease … Breast cancer wasn’t even named as the onus.”

Ford’s courageous work has largely been credited with helping to destigmatize breast cancer. In the years that followed, the number of screenings “increased dramatically.” Via her New York Times obituary:

“According to a 1987 article in ‘The Journal of the National Archives,’ Mrs. Ford received 55,800 cards, or ’92 cubic feet of material,’ in response to her openness.”

Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt

Google any list of the so-called “Greatest Americans,” and Eleanor Roosevelt, the nation’s longest-serving first lady, will undoubtedly be near the top of the list. Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt occupied the White House from 1933 to 1945. One need not be a history buff to know the period was one of the most consequential in American history: the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the bulk of the Second World War.

During her husband’s presidency, Eleanor Roosevelt became a highly influential figure on the domestic and world stage. She wrote newspaper columns and frequently appeared on radio and television. She also played an active role in organizing government workers and civilians during the tumultuous period. As the New York Times put it:

“She was an [sic] indigenous to America as palms to a Florida coastline, and as the nation’s most peripatetic woman, she brought her warmth, sincerity, zeal and patience to every corner of the land and to much of the world.”

And it’s her role on the world stage that made her such a giant of American and global life and culture.

Work on the World Stage

At home, Eleanor Roosevelt championed civil rights, work that extended to foreign policy with the outbreak of World War II. In 1940, she brought together various stakeholders to develop a plan to rescue and evacuate child refugees from war zones. Later that year, she intervened after a ship carrying nearly 100 refugees had been turned away from Mexico and stopped in Virginia before returning to Europe. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum:

“Passengers aboard the ship sent telegrams pleading for Eleanor’s assistance. She expressed her concern to the State Department—as she often did when contacted about the plight of individual refugees. State Department officials ultimately allowed the passengers to disembark in the United States but made clear such permission would not be granted again.”

In 1941, Roosevelt wrote a short film, Women in Defense, directed by John Ford (yes, THE John Ford), for the Office of Emergency Management.

In addition to her more front-facing work, Roosevelt would serve as an informal advisor to her husband. But FDR often kept her out of the loop entirely. According to her New York Times obituary, FDR once told her that he was going on a trip to Cape Cod. In fact, he was meeting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Newfoundland.

The United Nations

Eleanor Roosevelt’s real influence came after her husband’s death in 1945 when Harry Truman assumed the US presidency. In December of that year, he appointed her as the country’s first delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. She became a key figure in forming and shaping that body, and an influential figure on the world stage. Roosevelt served as the first chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Later, she helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She served in the role until 1953.

The New York Times summed up her legacy as such:

“She was a symbol of the new role women were to play in the world. As a result of her work in the United Nations, particularly in behalf of the little peoples of the world, this esteem soon transcended national barriers to become virtually worldwide.”

The First Lady premieres on Showtime on April 17, 2022

Will DiGravio: Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.