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Lady Citizen: Gender, Memory, and Civic Identity
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This dissertation theorizes the first lady as a distinct embodiment of gender and citizenship. In particular, I argue that by examining the intersection of the first lady role and citizenship, we gain a more complete portrait of role’s historic, rhetorical, and public significance. Specifically, this study asks: How does the role of first lady offer a particular embodiment of citizenship in the public sphere? What are the constraints and opportunities of foregrounding the first lady as a public citizen? What are the rhetorical mechanisms that help explain how the informal role persists? Utilizing a rhetorical perspective, I begin with the premise that language, symbols, and discourse are never devoid of argument. My method, then, involves attention to the context, language, visuals, and performative acts through which the first lady role is constructed, maintained, and altered. Through three case studies I trace how the first lady role is foregrounded as a public citizen. Specifically, I examine the projection of the role onto Michelle Obama during the 2008 press coverage of the presidential election, the rhetorical exigencies that compel Lady Bird Johnson’s 1964 Whistle Stop tour, as well commemoration of the role at the Smithsonian exhibit and six presidential museums. Despite the abundance of possibility in theorizing about the public nature of the first lady role, what manifests throughout this project is a model of citizenship highly constrained, and overdetermined by not only gender, but also race and class. As such, the first lady’s citizen-status is not common or accessible, but rather always circumstantial and subservient to traditions based in white, heteronormative, male, supremacy. Indeed, the role’s agency lies in its ability to reify the gendered, raced, and classed assumptions of our nation’s liberal roots, not challenge them. Despite these findings, the project contributes to the growing body of literature that recovers, resuscitates, and redefines how women’s narratives are being remembered, created, and appreciated. The Lady Citizen presents new obstacles to reviving the first lady’s public legacy, but paves the way future work to come.
Kitsch, Sara R (2017). Lady Citizen: Gender, Memory, and Civic Identity. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from