Skip to main content

The First Ladies


The First Ladies

Following the release of their debut collaboration, THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN, Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray return with THE FIRST LADIES. Set during the early years of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time as governor of New York and then President of the United States, the book follows the unlikely but strong and deeply poignant friendship between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, the daughter of formerly enslaved parents who fought the odds to become an educator, a humanitarian and the First Lady of the civil rights movement.

When the two meet in 1927 at a luncheon thrown by Eleanor’s mother-in-law, slavery in America has officially ended, but racism and segregation definitely have not. Although the luncheon is held for women leaders of national clubs and organizations, an elite group that Mary definitely fits into --- given her role as president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs --- the other attendees are quick to show their discomfort. Fighting for the rights of Black Americans is one thing, but breaking bread with them is another. The ladies there are not nearly as skilled at hiding their true reactions as they are at posturing their progressive ideas in public.

"THE FIRST LADIES is everything that a good historical novel needs to be: educational, eye-opening and full of heart.... Of course, THE FIRST LADIES is made utterly unforgettable by the indomitable, inimitable Mary McLeod Bethune..."

One woman at the luncheon is delighted to see Mary, though: Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of Theodore, wife of Franklin and a powerhouse philanthropist in her own right. Despite falling on different sides of the political spectrum --- Eleanor a staunch Democrat, Mary a proud Republican --- the two hit it off, delighting in conversations about their shared interests in education, made evident by their individual ownerships of schools for women. By the end of the luncheon, they are not exactly friends, but they certainly are admirers of one another. They strike up a correspondence through letters and in-person meetings whenever their schedules allow. There is no doubt that these bright, dedicated women will be good for one another, but it is not yet clear how much their lives are about to change.

Ever since Franklin Roosevelt committed adultery, Eleanor has thrown herself into her own pursuits: education, race relations, and other progressive ideals and charities. In exchange for her turning a blind eye to his error in judgment, Franklin and his overbearing mother have agreed to allow Eleanor a good deal of freedom, which is made even easier by his polio, which has ended his foray into politics. Or so Eleanor thinks. As she and her friends, Nan and Marion --- both very active in the Democratic Party --- work to support presidential candidate Al Smith, whispers of a role for Franklin start to take hold. Practically before she knows it, he has been named Governor of New York, thrusting her back into a life in the spotlight: PR moves, palm-greasing and putting her own endeavors on the backburner. Eleanor is proud of her husband and knows he is the right man for the job, but she has even fewer people to confide in now. Except for Mary.

Mary, meanwhile, is facing her own challenges. She has become a beloved and admired voice in the civil rights movement and has earned the respect of many white politicians, but she knows that equality will never be realized until it stops being a Black fight and becomes a white demand. Even in her own town, she cannot help but notice that the streets on the Black side are unpaved and dusty, while those on the white side are paved with fresh concrete. However, these concerns are minimal compared to the very real issue of lynching, which many Americans believe to be a thing of the past but that Mary learns is happening in droves even in Northern states. She knows just the person to help amplify her message. But in order to come together, they will have to confront their own prejudices and stereotypes, not to mention Eleanor’s well-meaning but dangerous white saviorism.

As they transform from Mrs. Roosevelt and Ms. Bethune to Eleanor and Mary, their friendship deepens, but so too do the educations they receive from one another. Most obviously, Eleanor learns about her own internalized racism and her unspoken but pervasive idea that she, a white woman, must know what is best for Mary and the community she represents. But Mary acknowledges that the party she has backed her entire life may no longer hold her best interests at heart. Always at the front of every movement, she now must learn to listen to the youths who want more revolutionary figures and ideas and who are sick of pandering to the old white guard the way that Mary has had to do for so long.

As President Roosevelt attempts to maintain his Southern Democratic base (which supports segregation and is unwilling to discuss lynchings), Mary pushes Eleanor to intercede, prompting great developments in American race relations. Together, the women are powerhouses, but what makes this book shine is the friendship and respect they share, and how they continue to learn from and about one another --- not just politically but also personally.

If you, like me, thought that Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray had achieved a perfect work of historical fiction with THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN, then get ready to be even more impressed, blown away and spellbound by their second collaboration. THE FIRST LADIES is everything that a good historical novel needs to be: educational, eye-opening and full of heart. Sure, the friendship between Eleanor and Mary is advantageous politically. But what makes it special is the true regard they hold for one another, and the ways in which Benedict and Murray allow them to support and uplift one another during personal tragedies.

Of course, THE FIRST LADIES is made utterly unforgettable by the indomitable, inimitable Mary McLeod Bethune, a figure I am ashamed to say I had not heard of before reading this book. But I will search for her in every history textbook, monument and memorial dedicated to the fight for the advancement of women and Black Americans. Now I just need a book about her and her alone!

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on June 30, 2023

The First Ladies
by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray