40 years ago, jackie onassis got a job: reflections on our curious cultural reluctance to seeing first ladies as working women

well, 40 years and some days ago. and, to bring us full circle, this happened to coincide with the aforementioned spate of 1975 rumors that she was hooking up with sinatra, so the story is frequently illustrated in the contemporary papers with a photo from The Night of The Visible Bra Black Striped Jumpsuit and The Suit of a Different Color.


which, OF COURSE, <3.

The Pantagraph [Bloomington, IL], 18 September 1975

The Pantagraph [Bloomington, IL],
18 Sept 1975

 so’s here’s the deal. i am struggling with what to do with this. not the sinatra crap, but with the fact that she got a job.

because it was SHOCKING then. and it should still be SHOCKING (though having written that i’m not sure i believe it). and it, like, just is not.

Ottawa Journal, 23 Sept 1975

Ottawa Journal, 23 Sept 1975

because we most of us know women who are working. and because most female celebrities are, to some degree, working women.

kim kardashian is a working woman, ya’ll.

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 12.45.58 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 12.46.03 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 12.48.01 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 12.47.58 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 12.48.56 PM

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 12.48.05 PMvia instagram

there’s actually a loooooooong history of female celebrities being working women, it’s just that, in the 1920s through to still even now, the work life of actresses was downplayed and their private lives emphasized.

true story: liz taylor was working too.

LIFE, 6 October 1961

LIFE, 6 October 1961


their work often looks different. because it looks like life and like fun, we do not identify it as work.

we can see this dynamic at play in the way jackie’s story is told and in the way we write about first ladies more generally.


fyi, the position of first lady sucks. there, i said it.

and it sucks, from my perspective, because it is a job that is presented as not being a job.

so that jackie’s tenure as first lady is often portrayed as a time of party-giving and prettiness, punctuated by a little redecorating adventure.


and her legacy is reduced to Fashions.


the reasons for this are two-fold: (1) the position of first lady sucks, and (2) THE TIMES.

LIFE, 1 Sept 1961

LIFE, 1 Sept 1961

and also she was genuinely interested in these things.

jacqueline-jackie-kennedy-white-house-restoration-1 jacqueline-jackie-kennedy-white-house-restoration-2

things historically characterized as “lady” things.

she repeatedly reminds everyone that the she is not redecorating but restoring and restoration is about “scholarship,” but, you guys: “scholarship” pretty much just looks like a bunch of people moving chairs around a room, no? a preposterously excessive number of people, at that, given the relatively few number of chairs.
jacqueline-jackie-kennedy-white-house-restoration-6jacqueline-jackie-kennedy-white-house-restoration-12 jacqueline-jackie-kennedy-white-house-restoration-8 jacqueline-jackie-kennedy-white-house-restoration-13even she is laughing like, omg, this totally downplays what i do!


this is one of the problems of writing. it doesn’t look that hard.


perhaps this is why we see more photographs of writers’ libraries than of writers writing. because the books are the physical evidence that some work has been done.

jackie’s work here is like that too. i see a lamp while jackie sees the many books she read and letters she wrote to bring that lamp back to the white house. she did the work so i don’t have to.

and so it is hard to quantify the work beyond saying the white house looked beautiful and the white house tour was the first full-length documentary narrated by a woman on network tv. which makes it a broadcast milestone.

the broadcast is History. but the restoration is not classified as work.

two of the many frustrating realities are this: a person can only be so bold as they want to be and a first lady is often only so bold as the times allow.


and so jackie’s white house work- and i’m duplicating the problem i’m complaining of here and reducing it to the restoration when really there is significantly more- is reduced to a feminine project sanctioned by her husband.

LIFE, 1 Sept 1961

LIFE, 1 Sept 1961

OLINE, you may be asking, WHY DOES THIS MATTER?? well, check out her CV come 1975…

Ottawa Journal, 17 Sept 1975

Ottawa Journal, 17 Sept 1975

notice how there is no mention of her work as first lady. which maybe appears totally irrelevant in this discussion because they are talking about her work in publishing, BUT.


white house guide bookjpg

the fact that i cannot find a bigger image on the internet perhaps testifies to the fact that we need to be paying more attention to this thing, because it was a huge big deal at the time.

28 June 1962

28 June 1962

full disclosure: that’s the only page 1 appearance that i can find, but it was still acknowledged elsewhere and seen as one of her big accomplishments.

Bridgeport Telegram [CT], 7 July 1962

Bridgeport Telegram [CT],
7 July 1962

she saw it as an achievement too.

The Kane Republican [PA] 25 July 1962

The Kane Republican [PA]
25 July 1962

 and so to act as though she hadn’t done anything in publishing or held a job since quitting her position at the times-herald to marry in 1953 is a bit ludicrous.

The_Corpus_Christi_Caller_Times_Thu__Jun_25__1953_ (1)

25 June 1953

but we do not think of being first lady as a job. they didn’t then and i would argue we still do not now.

in march 1978, when gloria steinem puts her on the cover of Ms., the emphasis is on her current work in publishing. why does she work now? there is not an acknowledgement that she has been working all along.

FullSizeRender (1)

jackie herself does not cast it as such either.

i don’t know that jackie would agree with my analysis of her career, but having spent more time in her papers than she probably did, i can testify to the fact that there is a hell of a lot of paperwork involved in being a former first lady. to be first lady involves exponentially more.


it is work. and yet neither steinem nor jackie portray it as such in 1978.

“What no one could have predicted,” steinem writes the following year, “was her return to the publishing world she had entered briefly after college– to the kind of job she could have had years ago, completely on her own.”

steinem is making a feminist point here, as am i- it just looks a bit different 40 years later.

jackie obviously couldn’t have been first lady on her own- but her time as first lady should not be a blank spot in her resume. it is a job she could not have held had her husband not been president but it is still a job.


to state the incredibly obvious: first ladies are people too.

laughably obvious, yes, but something that- because the position is dependent upon there being a president and because we do not value the first lady’s work- is, i think, often not considered true.

we all too often fail to consider them as independent people. STILL. which means we also fail to appreciate the complexities of their job.


jackie was, i would argue, never without a job. it is simply that we didn’t acknowledge what she was doing as work. and, sadly, we still don’t. which, i think, says something rather important about us.


6 thoughts on “40 years ago, jackie onassis got a job: reflections on our curious cultural reluctance to seeing first ladies as working women

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